Romania scraps law soft on corruption after biggest protests since collapse of Communism

The decree would have saved hundreds of officials from prosecution

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 05 February, 2017, 12:50pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 05 February, 2017, 8:44pm

Romania’s premier has announced a dramatic climbdown on legislation that had been seen as a retreat on corruption, after the biggest protests since the collapse of Communism.

Sorin Grindeanu told a hastily convened news conference that the government would meet on Sunday to repeal an emergency decree that could have seen some corrupt officials escape prosecution.

“I do not want to divide Romania,” Grindeanu said at government headquarters in central Bucharest, sparking celebrations among the estimated 120,000 people protesting outside for a fifth evening in a row.

Raluca, a demonstrator in her 30s, said she was delighted but that the leftwing government, which has been in office for barely a month, was still not to be trusted.

“People are going to remain very vigilant with this government,” she said.

Watch: Romanian protesters celebrate after government graft climbdown

The decree, passed Tuesday and due to enter into force on February 10, was to make abuse of power a crime only punishable by jail if the sums involved exceeded 200,000 lei (44,000 euros, $47,500).

The government also wants in a separate decree to be reviewed by parliament next week to free some 2,500 people from prison serving sentences of less than five years.

Grindeanu, from the left-wing Social Democrats (PSD), had said that the measures were to bring penal law into line with the constitution and reduce overcrowding in prisons.

Critics had said that the real aim was to let off some of the several thousand officials and politicians ensnared in a major anti-corruption drive in recent years, many of them from the PSD.

Earlier this week Brussels, which had previously praised Romania for its efforts on graft, long the scourge of the European Union’s second-poorest member, warned against “backtracking”.

The US State Department had said it was “deeply concerned” that the new measures “undermine rule of law and weaken accountability for financial and corruption-related crimes”.

On Saturday Grindeanu said that the penal code still had to be fixed but that a bill would be sent to parliament “as soon as possible” and the proposed 200,000-lei limit would probably be scrapped.

A spokeswoman for President Klaus Iohannis, who along with the ombudsman and the judicial watchdog wanted the constitutional court to examine the legislation, said the decree had been a “flagrant mistake”.

But most worried of all were ordinary Romanians, who poured onto the streets in numbers not seen since people power toppled Nicolae Ceausescu and consigned the communist system to history in 1989.

Saturday saw a noisy march by tens of thousands of people, holding banners, waving flags and blowing whistles and vuvuzela horns, to the parliament building where they formed a human chain.

On Friday night there were between 200,000 and 250,000 people demonstrating around the country, and on Wednesday as many as 300,000 according to estimates by Romanian media.

“It’s about the future of our children, for our kids. We want justice to be made,” said Georgiana Dragoi, a housewife taking part in a protest of families with children on Saturday morning.

Civil servant Alexander, 30, pushing his baby in a pram in the demo, said that he regularly experiences graft in his daily life.

Corruption “is all around us, small things that make our lives much more difficult,” he told AFP. “I work in the system and for a person inside it is terrifying.”

Friday’s protest in the capital, which drew around 100,000 people, saw effigies of government officials in prison fatigues and a coffin marked “Romanian justice” paraded through the crowds to jeers.

The PSD has only just returned to power after handsomely winning elections on December 11 promising to boost salaries and pensions in a country where one in four people lives in poverty.

This was barely a year after public anger over a deadly nightclub blaze, blamed on corrupt officials turning a blind eye to fire regulations, drove the PSD-led government from office.

One of those marching on Saturday was Mihail Grecea, 42, who was fortunate to survive the nightclub fire and who spent months in hospital. Two friends were among the 64 people who died.

“I am lucky to be alive. And now I am here, protesting,” the film director told AFP, his arm still wrapped in a bandage.

The fire “was the fault of the system... What the government is doing is taking the country back 20 years”.

Additional reporting by Bloomberg and Reuters