Romanian police fired tear gas and water cannon to disperse protesters in the capital, Bucharest, as tens of thousands took to the streets to call on the country’s government to resign.
Friday’s rally was attended by many expatriates who returned to Romania to express their anger over what they say is entrenched high-level corruption, low wages, and attempts by the ruling Social Democrat (PSD) party to weaken the judiciary.
Thousands of people also joined demonstrations in other main Romanian cities, including Cluj in the northwest, central Sibiu and Timisoara in the west.
In Bucharest, the crowd chanted “resign” and “thieves” as they assembled in a central square outside the main government building.
Messages projected on buildings around the square said, “We are the people” and “No violence”.
— Dragoş Ioniţă (@DragosIonita) August 10, 2018
Hundreds of protesters tried to break through the police cordon and officers in riot gear responded with tear gas and pepper spray, forcing the demonstrators back.
“Corruption has been a big problem in Romania for a long time,” Kit Gillet, a journalist who attended the protest in Bucharest, told Al Jazeera.
“People are angry about that and feel that the system needs to change.”
Romania ranks as one of the European Union‘s most corrupt states and Brussels keeps its justice system under special monitoring.
Romanian police on Saturday defended their use of force. Marius Militaru, spokesman for Romania’s riot police, said 70 people, including 11 riot police, were taken to hospitals the previous night, and police are pursuing charges against eight people.
There were no immediate reports of life-threatening injuries, but Militaru said a female colleague had been “brutally beaten” and has a suspected fractured spine.
He said officers were ordered by the Bucharest prefecture – government authorities in charge of the capital – to evacuate Victory Square late Friday after an hours-long protest in front of the government offices that drew tens of thousands of expatriate Romanians and local residents demanding the government’s resignation.
Another police spokesman, Georgian Enache, said “the legitimate state violence,” was justified because protesters had been warned several times to leave the square.
‘Nothing has changed’
Stefan and Ileana Anghel, Romanian nationals living in Spain, waved a Spanish flag after travelling across Europe to take part in the demonstration.
“Unfortunately nothing has changed in Romania,” Ileana told AFP news agency.
“We want to see modern roads and schools and above all to not have to pay bribes to the left and right,” added Ileana.
Last month Romanian President Klaus Iohannis sacked top anti-graft prosecutor Laura Codruta Kovesi, who was considered a symbol of the fight against corruption.
With Kovesi at the helm, the National Anticorruption Directorate (DNA) prosecutor’s office had led a crackdown on corruption among local and national elected officials in recent years, earning accusations of abuse of power and the enmity of many in Romania’s political class.
Among the protesters in Bucharest on Friday was 60-year-old Vlad and his wife who flew in from New York where they have lived for 30 years.
“Corruption and embezzlement, which profit the ruling class, are what bothers me,” said Vlad, an estate agent in the US.
“A force is being born here [at the protest] and I hope that the message is heard,” he added.
About four million Romanians work abroad from an overall population of 20 million. Half of the expatriates are living in Italy and Spain, according to official figures.
Last year those working abroad sent 4.3bn euro ($4.9bn) back to their families at home, nearly 2.5 percent of the national GDP in one of Europe‘s poorest countries.
“I left to give my children a better life, which was not possible here then,” said truck driver Daniel Ostafi, 42, who moved to Italy 15 years ago in search of a future he says Romania could not offer his family.
“Unfortunately, it is still not possible, the … people who govern us are not qualified and they are corrupt,” he told Reuters news agency.
Some politicians from the ruling coalition derided the rally in the run-up, saying they did not understand why the diaspora would protest.