Huge crowds join Romanian anti-government protests

Demonstrators are opposed to a new government decree which would decriminalise lower-level political corruption

Huge crowds join Romanian anti-government protests

Riot police and protestors outside government buildings in Bucharest, Romania, 01-02-2017. Image: AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda

A quarter of million Romanians have taken to the streets to protest against government plans to free or reduce the sentences of officials jailed for corruption.

Demonstrators have clashed with police in one the biggest anti-government protests the country has ever seen.

It is the second night of protests since the country’s new Social Democrat (PSD) Prime Minister Sorin Grindeanu passed an emergency decree which would decriminalise abuse-of-power offences where the sums of money involved are less than 200,000 Romanian Leu (around €44,000).

The government on Tuesday also approved a draft bill that would grant thousands of prison pardons - however many believe the changes will benefit senior officials rather than ordinary convicts.

Under the decree - which the government hopes to see implemented within ten days - criminal negligence would no longer be an offence and the definition of conflict of interest would be narrowed.

It would effectively put an end to the ongoing trial of PSD party leader Liviu Dragnea - who stands accused of using his political influence to secure state salaries for two people working at his party headquarters between 2006 and 2013.

Dozens of other politicians from all parties also stand to benefit.

The coalition government has claimed the laws are aimed at easing overcrowding in the country's jails but critics of the move - including the European Union - are unconvinced.

The Romanian Superior Magistrates' Council has filed a constitutional court challenge to the decree and protestors voiced their opposition calling on the government to resign.

Police clashes

"Repeal it, then leave," protesters shouted. "Thieves, thieves." Many waving Romanian national flags.

"I am outraged," 46-year-old protester Gabriela State told IRN. "The PSD (Social Democrat Party) won the elections but that doesn't mean they can sneakily change the penal code in the middle of the night."

The rally in the capital subsided peacefully by late evening, but after people left the square, a group of about 300 soccer ultras came in and threw fireworks and stones at riot police, according to reports from Reuters.

Riot police detain people after minor clashes erupted during a protest in Bucharest, Romania, 02-02-2017. Image: AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda

The police dispersed them with tear gas. Emergency services said two policemen and two protesters were slightly hurt by stones.

The anger spilled into 55 other towns and cities - including in Timisoara, where protests in 1989 sparked the revolution which toppled the late dictator Nicolae Ceausescu.

Fight against corruption

President Klaus Iohannis, who has limited powers and opposed the decriminalisation of various offences relating to official misconduct in office, said: "Today is a day of mourning for the rule of law."

"The problem is that one cannot act the way the government did in a country with the rule of law, which Romania is and wants to remain,” he said.

In Brussels, European Commission head Jean-Claude Juncker and his deputy Frans Timmermans issued a joint statement warning: "The fight against corruption needs to be advanced, not undone.

"The Commission warns against backtracking and will look thoroughly at the emergency ordinance ... in this light."