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February 2, 2017

With Jon Henley

Romania’s prime minister has refused to repeal decrees that critics say will free corrupt officials from jail early and shield others from conviction, despite international condemnation and the biggest popular protests since the fall of communism.

“We took a decision in the government and we are going to press ahead,” Sorin Grindeanu said after a meeting of his ruling leftwing Social Democrats (PSD). The party leader, Liviu Dragnea, blamed an “ongoing campaign of lies and disinformation” for opposition to the decrees.

“The PSD won elections [in December] with a huge vote. The government’s power is legitimate,” Dragnea said, labelling the centre-right president, Klaus Iohannis, the “moral author of last night’s violence”.

 Iohannis has threatened to take the ordinance to the constitutional court, the last legal resort to stop the emergency decrees passing into law. He said on Thursday he was “impressed” by the protests, adding that Romanians had “clearly what they want: the rule of law”.

The European commission vice-president, Frans Timmermans, urged the government to “urgently reconsider”, saying that Romania’s EU funding could be at risk.

In a separate statement, the US, Germany, Canada, Finland, the Netherlands and France said the government had undermined “progress on rule of law and the fight against corruption over the past 10 years”.

Clashes broke out in Bucharest after hundreds of thousands demonstrated across Romania in a second night of protests. Bottles and firecrackers were hurled at police in the capital, who responded with teargas. Twenty people were arrested and eight injured, authorities said.

In the largest demonstrations since the fall of communist dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu in 1989, up to 300,000 people braved subzero temperatures to participate in protests across 50 towns and cities, including 150,000 in the capital. There were shouts of “Thieves” and calls for politicians to be locked up.

On Tuesday night the government passed an emergency ordinance that would, among other things, decriminalise cases of official misconduct in which the financial damage is less than 200,000 lei (£38,000). The decree is due to take effect in a little over a week.

The government says the order and another draft bill on jail pardons are needed to ease prison overcrowding and bring the criminal code into line with recent constitutional court rulings.

But many worry the changes will reverse an anti-corruption push in Romania that saw the then prime minister Victor Ponta go on trial in 2015 over alleged tax evasion and money laundering – charges he denies. Prosecutors are currently investigating 2,150 cases of alleged abuse of power.

On Wednesday opposition parties filed a no-confidence motion against the government, which is led by the PSD and has only been in office a few weeks. The PSD bounced back in elections on 11 December, barely a year since mass protests forced it from office.

Dragnea is currently on trial for alleged abuse of power and is already barred from office because of a two-year suspended jail sentence for electoral fraud handed down last year. He denies any wrongdoing in relation to the latest charges.

Business minister Florin Jianu announced his resignation on Thursday, saying he disagreed with the government’s stance, while PSD’s deputy chair, Mihai Chirica, called on the government to scrap the decree and send it to parliament for debate.

Jianu said on Facebook: “I don’t want to have to tell my child that I was a coward and I agreed to something that I don’t believe in … This is what my conscience tells me to do.”

The British embassy in Bucharest said it would be concerned if the decree “were to shrink the scope of corruption offences” and was concerned by the “very limited nature of consultations with all relevant stakeholders”.

Justice minister Florin Iordache, who has come under fire for publishing the decrees, will temporarily hand his duties over to a subordinate in the ministry, spokeswoman Carmen Lita said. She said it was because he had a heavy workload preparing this year’s budget.

The protests on Tuesday and Wednesday follow a demonstration last Sunday that drew 40,000 people, including 20,000 in the capital, and another a week earlier involving more than 15,000. More protests are expected later on Thursday.

“The size of the protests and the range of protesters is hugely significant and shows the depth and breadth of anger,” said Dan Brett, an associate professor at the Open University. “However, [those] who [might] benefit from the law have no interest in backing down. They are working on the assumption that as with most protests they will soon fizzle out and so can be ignored.”

www.theguardian.com/world/2017/feb/02/romanians-clash-with-police-in-biggest-protests-since-fall-of-communism