Romanians take to streets to protest decriminalisation of official misconduct

Protesters take to the streets in Cluj-Napoca, Romania. Picture: Andrei Dascalescu
Protesters take to the streets in Cluj-Napoca, Romania. Picture: Andrei Dascalescu
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Tens of thousands of Romanians flooded city streets for a second all-night protest after the government pushed through a bill decriminalising official misconduct, which critics claim will destabilise attempts to fight corruption in the former Communist nation.

Demonstrators turned out in cities including Bucharest, Cluj and Sibiu in opposition to the “emergency ordinance” published at 1am local time this morning, which European Union leaders said they were following "with great concern".

Romanians joined organised protests from 7pm local time last night, chanting and holding placards with the words: “Down with the the government” and “This government needs to go”.

Some chanted "You did it at night, like thieves," referring to the late hour the ordinance was passed.

Critics believe the law, which will decriminalise cases of official misconduct in public office in which the damages are valued at less than 200,000 leu (£37,000), will benefit members of the government - led by the Social Democratic party, which was elected in November - some of whom are currently under investigation for fraud.

The National Anti-Corruption Directorate (DNA) has launched 1,170 prosecutions in the past three years in a nationwide anti-corruption drive, in cases which cost the state more than €1bn. Its chief prosecutor, Laura Kovesi, claims that the new law could affect one in three of these.

Protesters have claimed that the marches planned for cities across the country will be the biggest since the Revolution of 1989, which saw dictator Nicolae Ceausescu killed by firing squad on Christmas Day.

Romanian justice minister Florin Iordache, blamed social media for what he claimed were misunderstandings of the situation.

"People, outraged by the Emergency Ordinance, took to the streets using arguments taken from social networks," he said. "It just is not anything secret, illegal or immoral character of that order and I will explain this with counter-arguments to arguments circulated on social networks."

He added: "I urge all those who cried grievances in the street to read carefully and responsibly with their eyes and not 'through the eyes of others', the text of the emergency ordinance."

EU president Jean-Claude Juncker and vice-president Frans Timmermans said in a joint statement: “The fight against corruption needs to be advanced, not undone. We are following the latest developments in Romania with great concern.

“The Commission warns against backtracking and will look thoroughly at the emergency ordinance on the Criminal Code and the Law on Pardons in this light.”

Romanian president Klaus Iohannis, who was elected in 2014 on an anti-corruption ticket, but has little real power to change law, called the measure’s adoption “a day of mourning for the rule of law”.

He has previously pledged to hold a referendum over a separate law which would see prisoners serving sentences shorter than five years - excluding rapists and multiple offenders- freed in what the government claims is a move to ease prison overcrowding.

Opposition politicians held up placards in the Romanian parliament chamber this afternoon, stating "We await the referendum" and "Shame".

Dora Pop, from Cluj-Napoca, Romania’s second city, where 25,000 people were estimated to have joined tonight's protests, told The Scotsman: “Everybody is beyond angry, disgusted. We’ll make history. It’s the first time since the Revolution that we have such an impressive number of protesters. We’re aiming for the second one.”

Protester and photographer Andrei Dascalescu, who is documenting the event, said: "Yesterday was a spontaneous protest prompted by last night announcement of the changes in law. But today we expect a lot more people to take on the street for protesting."

Youth hostels in Bucharest were offering free accommodation for protesters from other parts of the country who want to attend marches in the capital, while other businesses are also handing out free supplies for protesters to make placards.

Leaders of the centre-left Social Democratic Party and the junior Alliance of Democratic Liberals, which form the current coalition government, both face corruption charges that bar them from serving as ministers.

Social Democrat chairman Liviu Dragnea was unable to become prime minister because in April 2016 he received a two-year suspended jail sentence for vote rigging.