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Romanian president reluctantly signs legal reform in "setback for democracy"

BUCHAREST (Reuters) - Romania’s president on Friday reluctantly signed off a judicial reform, including a reduction in his own powers, that he called a “setback for Romanian democracy”.

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Klaus Iohannis had, together with opposition parties, tried to block the measure which, among other things, removes his right to veto new chief prosecutor appointments, just as the government replaces a sacked anti-corruption prosecutor.

The Constitutional Court last month found the measure put forward by the ruling Social Democrats (PSD) to be in line with the constitution, leaving Iohannis, a centrist, no alternative but to sign it into law.

The law broadly gives more powers to the justice minister, a political appointee, to the detriment of the president and a magistrates’ regulatory body.

The European Union, which has kept Romania’s justice system under special monitoring since it joined the bloc a decade ago, fears the measure will reverse progress in fighting high-level graft by exposing judges to political interference.

“This change represents a setback for Romanian democracy, a danger signalled by our European partners,” Iohannis said in a statement.

Romania is one of Europe’s most corrupt countries, and tens of thousands of Romanians protesting against corruption have taken to the streets several times since the Social Democrats took power in early 2017 and tried to decriminalise several graft offences - most recently in August.

Before her sacking in July, chief anti-corruption prosecutor Laura Codruta-Kovesi had secured a spate of convictions against lawmakers, ministers and mayors, exposing conflicts of interest, abuse of power, fraud and the awarding of state contracts in exchange for bribes.

Justice Minister Tudorel Toader, who fired Codruta-Kovesi for exceeding her authority, has nominated little-known magistrate Adina Florea to replace her.

Speaking before a judicial advisory panel on Monday in her confirmation process, Florea said cases of abuse of office should be investigated by regular prosecutors, not the specialised unit, known as the DNA, that deals with graft.

Social Democrat party leader Liviu Dragnea was sentenced in June to three and a half years in prison for incitement to abuse of office, though an appeal is still pending.

Writing by Radu-Sorin Marinas; Editing by Kevin Liffey