March 26, 2018 / 7:06 PM / in 4 months

Romania's senate passes justice bills; opposition to challenge

BUCHAREST (Reuters) - Romania’s upper house of parliament approved a package of laws to overhaul the judiciary on Monday but opponents said they would ask the Constitutional Court to halt it on the grounds it would weaken judicial independence.

The court has already ruled this year that some amendments needed reworking. The European Union has been concerned the measures will reverse progress in fighting high-level corruption in one of the bloc’s most graft-prone member states.

Critics including magistrates say the overhaul would weaken judicial independence by giving politicians more control over the system. One of the key changes would remove the non-political president’s right to veto the government’s nominations for chief prosecutors.

Another contested provision would empower the finance ministry to recoup any losses triggered by a judicial error from the judge who issued the sentence, instead of from state funds. Critics say that could distort court rulings.

The country’s judicial system remains under special monitoring by Brussels, a decade after its 2007 accession.

Plans by the Social Democrat-led ruling coalition to overhaul the judiciary and amend legislation to decriminalize some graft offences have drawn criticism from the EU, the U.S. State Department and Romanian magistrates, and have triggered large street protests since early 2017.

The upper house senate will now send the bills to President Klaus Iohannis, whose signature is required for them to take effect. Earlier this year, Iohannis told the EU he would fight for courts’ independence.

Opposition groupings including the centrist National Liberal Party said on Monday they would take the bills back to the Constitutional Court, which could put the approval process on hold for the second time this year.

Romanian anti-graft prosecutors have investigated thousands of public officials in an unprecedented crackdown on sleaze in recent years. The lower house and senate speakers, both leaders of the ruling coalition, are on trial in separate cases.

Reporting by Radu Marinas; editing by Andrew Roche

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