June 22, 2018 / 11:38 AM / a month ago

Romania ruling party rallies behind chief after graft conviction

BUCHAREST (Reuters) - Senior members of Romania’s ruling Social Democrats (PSD) expressed undimmed support for their leader on Friday after a preliminary Supreme Court ruling sentenced the country’s most powerful politician to prison for corruption.

FILE PHOTO: Romania's ruling Social Democratic Party leader Liviu Dragnea is greeted by supporters during a demonstration in Bucharest, Romania, June 9, 2018. Inquam Photos/Liviu Florin Albei via REUTERS/File Photo

Senior party leaders were due to meet late in the day to discuss the sentencing of Liviu Dragnea, but some spoke before the gathering to criticize the ruling as political and express their backing.

PSD lawmaker Adrian Solomon said the party was “100 percent” behind Dragnea, who has been prevented from becoming prime minister because of a previous conviction over vote-rigging. “This is not justice,” Solomon said.

Another PSD senior, secretary general Marian Neacsu said: “This is not a ruling against a person, but one against the party, against the millions of people who believe in us.”

Having governed Romania for much of the three decades since the collapse of communism in 1989, the PSD is plagued by a raft of corruption accusations.

In recent years, the party has sought to water down anti-graft institutions, despite criticism from the European Union which Romania joined in 2007. But observers say the party could face internal pressures were Dragnea, the country’s most powerful politician, to go to jail.

The PSD leader, who is also speaker of the lower house of parliament, was found guilty of keeping two women on the payroll of a state agency in 2006-2013 even though they were employed by his party. Thursday’s ruling prompted thousands across Romania to rally against him.

He has repeatedly denied all the charges and is expected to appeal against the verdict, which relates to when he was a county council chief.

Legally, Dragnea can remain party leader and parliament speaker until a final verdict. Courts in Romania are about to go into summer recess until September, and only emergency rulings over arrests will be made in the meantime.

“The PSD will continue to support its president. This is the only appropriate approach, respecting the presumption of innocence,” PSD Vice-President Natalia Intotero told Reuters.

“Our (parliament) majority will not be affected. Our government will not be affected,” she said.

Last year, attempts by Dragnea’s coalition government to weaken anti-corruption legislation triggered the country’s biggest protests in decades.

This week, parliament approved legal changes that critics said could encourage criminals to act with impunity, the latest twist in a regional drama that has exposed the fragility of eastern Europe’s post-communist democracies.

Editing by William Maclean

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