Protests surge as Romania decriminalises corruption

Hundreds of thousands decry measures that decriminalise graft offences as judicial watchdog announces court challenge.

| | Politics, Romania, Europe

Bucharest, Romania - Late on Tuesday, January 31, Romania’s government adopted an emergency decree that officially decriminalises corruption. The decision prompted large protests throughout the country, with many fearing a setback for the year-long fight against corruption in the Eastern European country, referring to the measures as an attack on the rule of law.

The emergency decree decriminalises criminal punishments for charges of abuse of power, conflict of interest and work negligence. Justice Minister Florin Iordache said the measure would decriminalise abuse of power cases in which the financial damage is valued at less than 200,000 lei ($47,800). 

Social unrest began nearly two weeks before Tuesday's decree, when the local press drew attention to the government’s intention to pass two emergency laws: one on prison pardons and the other on changes to the penal code. Since then, people have taken to the streets in several cities around Romania, demanding a halt to both measures and, in the end, demanding the resignation of the social democrat government.

These are the largest protests Romania has seen since the fall of communism 27 years ago.


 READ MORE: Biggest protests in decades hit Romania over corruption


The government’s move drew criticism from President Klaus Iohannis, who called the measure’s adoption “a day of mourning for the rule of law ... which has received a grave blow from the enemies of justice”.

It also drew criticism from chief judges and prosecutors, the anti-corruption agency and numerous civil society organisations. International reactions to the emergency laws have not been favourable, either. European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and First Vice-President Frans Timmermans said in a joint statement that they were following the latest developments in Romania “with great concern” and that the fight against corruption needed to be advanced in Romania, not undone.

In an unprecedented move, six strategic allies of Romania - the US, Canada, Germany, France, the Netherlands and Belgium - issued a joint statement calling for a repeal of the decree and underlining the importance of the fight against corruption.

On Wednesday, February 1, crowds reached a staggering 150,000 protesters in Bucharest alone. It was the first time that violence occurred since the protests began, after hooligans allegedly infiltrated the demonstration and threw firecrackers and bottles at police. Twenty people were arrested, five were were taken to hospitals and treated for injuries. 

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