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Romanian government under pressure amid protests against graft law

Daniel Mihailescu, AFP | Romanian police stand guard outside the government’s headquarters in the capital Bucharest on January 31, 2017.

Romania’s justice minister temporarily ceded his duties and another cabinet figure resigned on Thursday as cracks appeared in the leftist-led government over a corruption decree that has sparked the biggest protests since the 1989 fall of communism.

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The morning after 250,000 Romanians took to the streets, Romania’s trade and business minister, Florin Jianu, quit over the decree, which could effectively amnesty dozens of officials accused of corruption, saying he wanted to be able to look his child in the eye.

The state news agency Agerpres then reported that Justice Minister Florin Iordache, architect of the decree, had ceded his duties to his deputy until Feb. 7.

A ministry official cited the toll of “intense activities” around the adoption of the government’s 2017 spending plan.

The government order, hastily adopted late on Tuesday, has triggered some of the biggest nationwide demonstrations since Nicolae Ceausescu’s communist rule ended in a popular uprising and a Christmas Day firing squad in 1989.

Romania, a country of 20 million people, joined the European Union in 2007, but has struggled to combat endemic corruption. The decree would, among other things, decriminalise abuse-of-power offences in which the sums involved are less than 200,000 lei ($48,000).

Critics say this would roll back what progress has been made against graft. The decree has also drawn fire from the United States, Germany and the European Commission.

With fresh protests announced for Thursday, Jianu announced via Facebook that he was resigning. It is the “ethical thing to do,” he said, “not for my professional honesty, my conscience is clean on that front, but for my child”.

“How am I going to look him in the eye and what am I going to tell him over the years? Am I going to tell him his father was a coward and supported actions he does not believe in, or that he chose to walk away from a story that isn’t his?”

Court challenge

Prime Minister Sorin Grindeanu has shown no sign of giving ground, but a vice-president of the ruling Social Democrats (PSD), Mihai Chirica, added to the signs of strain when he urged the government on Thursday to rescind the decree.

President Klaus Iohannis, a former leader of the opposition centre-right Liberal Party, followed Romania’s top judicial watchdog in filing a legal challenge to the decree with the Constitutional Court. The court has yet to say when it will consider the challenge.

The decree is due to take effect in a little over one week. The government says the order, and a draft bill on jail pardons, are needed to ease prison over-crowding and bring the criminal code into line with recent constitutional court rulings.

Critics say it is tailor-made to benefit dozens of public officials under investigation or on trial for corruption, including PSD leader Liviu Dragnea. The government denies this.

Anti-corruption prosecutors, currently investigating more than 2,000 abuse-of-power cases, said on Thursday they had received a complaint about how the decree was drafted and were investigating.

The Social Democrats were driven from power by protests in late 2015 after a nightclub fire killed 64 people and triggered widespread anger over corruption and impunity when it emerged the venue lacked emergency exits and safety permits.

They regained power in a December election on promises to raise wages and pensions.

“The Social Democrats are testing how far they can go,” anti-corruption legal expert Laura Stefan said.

“If we accept they can approve emergency decrees without transparency, then tomorrow they will adopt others and so on. We will wake up without institutions overnight.”

(REUTERS)

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