Romanian ruling lawmakers propose looser anti-graft rules

BUCHAREST (Reuters) - Romania’s ruling Social Democrats have filed a slew of new changes to the criminal code that would decriminalize several graft offences, including some abuse of office crimes, their second attempt this year to weaken a crackdown on corruption.

FILE PHOTO: Protesters gather in front of the government building during a protest in Victoriei Square, in Bucharest, Romania, February 5, 2017. REUTERS/Alex Fraser

Transparency International ranks Romania as one of the European Union’s most corrupt states and Brussels keeps its justice system under special monitoring, although it has praised magistrates for their efforts to root out high-level graft.

A draft bill released on Tuesday showed a group of Social Democrat lawmakers are proposing that abuse of office offences that cause financial damage of less than 200,000 euros ($237,100) should no longer be punishable.

Other changes include serving prison sentences of less than three years at home, lower sentences for bribe taking and other graft crimes, as well as decriminalizing taking a bribe for someone other than the accused. Another proposal would make using one’s position to obtain sexual favors no longer a crime.

If approved, the changes would put an end to an ongoing trial of Social Democrat Party leader and lower house speaker Liviu Dragnea, who is accused of abuse of office.

Dozens of lawmakers and mayors across all parties stand to benefit from the changes. Romania’s anti-corruption prosecution unit has sent 72 members of parliament to trial since 2006.

A similar attempt to decriminalize some abuse of office crimes triggered the country’s largest street protests in decades at the start of 2017. The ruling coalition backed down at the time but has revived the proposals.

Earlier this month, the ruling coalition has used its overwhelming parliament majority to approve a judicial overhaul that puts magistrates under political control.

They have also filed a different set of proposals to change the criminal code that could derail law and order.

Thousands of magistrates, centrist President Klaus Iohannis, the European Commission, the U.S. State Department and seven EU states have all criticized both the approved bills and the criminal code proposals.

The Social Democrats and their junior coalition partner ALDE have denied the changes would affect the independence of the judiciary and have stressed that parliament has the right to legislate however it sees fit.

The proposed changes place Romania alongside its eastern European peers Hungary and Poland, where populist leaders are also trying to control the judiciary, in defying EU concerns over the rule of law.

Reporting by Luiza Ilie; Editing by Richard Chang