BUCHAREST (Reuters) - Tens of thousands of Romanians protested in Bucharest and other main cities on Sunday against government’s plans to decriminalize certain offences and pardon convicts through emergency decrees that could hurt an anti-graft drive.
The plans unveiled earlier this month by the Social Democrat government have been criticized by President Klaus Iohannis, by the prosecutor general, the Supreme Court, the chief anti-corruption prosecutor, civil rights groups and diplomats.
Police said about 50,000 people took part in the rally in Bucharest, making it the biggest demonstration in a recent wave of protests.
Shouting “Thieves, thieves”, protesters gathered in freezing weather in the capital’s main square Piata Universitatii and then rallied outside the justice ministry, the ombudsman’s office and the government’s headquarters.
According to the drafts, the government intends to decriminalize abuse of power actions causing financial damage of less than 200,000 lei ($47,500).
Abuse of power accounts for a third of anti-corruption investigations. The ruling leftist Social Democrats’ leader Liviu Dragnea is currently on trial in an abuse of power case. Dragnea, who received a two-year suspended jail sentence for a 2012 referendum-rigging conviction, has branded the recent street protests an attempted coup.
“I am here because I can’t believe that 27 years have passed and I find myself in the same place in the same square,” said actress Adriana Moca, recalling the eruption of the 1989 anti-communist revolution in Bucharest.
Thousands of people also protested in main cities in the country and in several European Union capitals.
On Monday, Justice Minister Florin Iordache will hold a round of public consultations over the plan - on which the country’s top panel of magistrates has already issued a non-binding, negative opinion.
Protesters shouted anti-government slogans and asked for the resignation of the justice minister, chanting: “Stop corruption,”, “No pardons, yes schools and hospitals,” and backed President Iohannis’s calls for a nationwide referendum to step up the anti-corruption fight.
The government is also seeking to pardon convicts sentenced to less than five years for committing certain crimes, and cut sentences by half for all prisoners aged over 60, and those having a terminal illness, regardless of their crime.
President Iohannis said on his Facebook page on Friday that German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whom he had a telephone discussion at her initiative said:
“The Chancellor expressed full support for efforts to maintain progress made by our country, but she expressed concern that certain steps initiated during this period do not affect the fight against corruption in Romania.”
The European Commission keeps Romania’s legal system under special monitoring. It has praised magistrates’ efforts to fight widespread graft, but noted Romanian politicians have a history of trying to pass legislation which could weaken investigative powers.
Writing by Radu Marinas; Editing by Stephen Powell