October 30, 2018 / 9:05 PM / 18 days ago

Thousands march against graft in Bucharest on third anniversary of deadly fire

BUCHAREST (Reuters) - Thousands of Romanians marched through Bucharest in protest against corruption on Tuesday on the third anniversary of a deadly nightclub fire they blame on graft and lack of accountability.

The fire at club Colectiv killed 65 people, triggering massive street protests and ultimately leading to the collapse of a Social Democrat government. But the party returned to power at the start of 2017 after sweeping a parliamentary election.

Since then, they have tried to weaken anti-corruption legislation and replace chief prosecutors, triggering protests and sparking worries about the rule of law with the European Commission and among diplomats.

Prosecutors have secured a slew of convictions in recent years against lawmakers, ministers and mayors, including Social Democrat leader Liviu Dragnea. Their investigations have exposed conflicts of interest, abuse of power, fraud and awarding of state contracts in exchange for bribes.

An estimated 2,500 people carrying flowers and candles marched toward the site of Colectiv club on Tuesday, saying the country remains ill-equipped to prevent or handle another tragedy. Hundreds lit candles in several other cities.

Infrastructure in Romania, one of the European Union’s most corrupt states, is among the bloc’s least developed, particularly in the healthcare sector.

“It was a tragedy triggered by corruption above all, a corrupt system made by politicians who are voting laws to escape getting convicted,” said Mihai Ruben, one of the marchers. “Some people are dying while others are above the law.”

The fire broke out when fireworks used during a concert by rock band Goodbye to Gravity ignited non-fireproofed insulation foam, triggering a stampede toward the single-door exit and trapping many inside.

Prosecutors’ investigations have shown the club’s owners allowed it to fill beyond capacity, and that it was not equipped to handle fireworks and lacked emergency exits.

Bucharest officials gave the club an operating license and safety inspectors allowed it to run despite knowing it did not have a fire safety permit. A court trial is still going on.

Sixty-five people died and more than 100 were injured. Badly-burned patients were then treated in improper conditions in Romanian hospitals, where many contracted infections that are still hurting their recovery.

“Life does not move on and Colectiv isn’t just a fire in a club,” Alexandra Furnea, one of the burn patients has said. “Colectiv happens everyday in many Romanian hospitals, institutions and souls.”

Reporting by Luiza Ilie and Sinisa Dragin, Editing by William Maclean

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