Protests erupt in Romania over proposals to soften criminal penalties

Thousands took to the streets in Romania on Sunday to protest pardons that they worry could reverse anti-corruption efforts.

Andreea Alexandru/ AP
Thousands of people march in Bucharest, Romania, on Sunday, Jan. 22, 2017, to protest against the government's proposal to pardon thousands of prisoners.

Thousands of Romanians took to the streets Sunday to speak out against a government proposal that they worry could reverse a crackdown on high-level corruption.

More than 15,000 people gathered in Bucharest's University Square to protest a government initiative to pardon as many as 3,700 convicted criminals. Demonstrators later broke through police lines and marched toward government headquarters, chanting: "We want democracy, with thieves in prison." Meanwhile, thousands more participated in protests in smaller cities around the country. 

Supporters of Premier Sorin Grindeanu's proposal say a mass pardon of prisoners would reduce overcrowding in Romanian prisons. But critics say the emergency ordinance, if passed, would help high-profile politicians and government allies accused of corruption. 

"A gang of politicians with criminal problems wants to change the law in Romania and weaken the rule of law. This can't be allowed," said Romania's President Klaus Iohannis, who briefly joined protesters in the square, as reported by Romania Insider. "It's inadmissible to change the legislation so that tens or hundreds of politicians with law problems have their criminal records cleaned and continue their wrongdoings. Romanians are rightfully outraged."

Romania has long been considered one of Europe's most graft-ridden countries. But the situation has improved somewhat in recent years thanks to a heavy crackdown, as Kit Gillet reported for The Christian Science Monitor in 2015:

[A]s part of the country’s ascension into the EU, which they joined in 2007 along with neighboring Bulgaria, Romania – where graft reaches to all levels of society – was required to clean up its act.

In 2003, the country established the National Anticorruption Directorate (DNA), a specialized prosecutor's office tasked with fighting corruption and graft. Initially the DNA targeted lower-level figures, but within a few years it was aiming far higher, and the number of people convicted of high-level graft of more than 10,000 euros ($11,300) has risen accordingly.

[In 2014], 1,138 individuals, including politicians, businessmen, judges, and prosecutors, were convicted of corruption in Romania, up from 155 in 2006. This included 24 mayors, five members of parliament, two ex-ministers, and a former prime minister, not to mention seven judges and 13 prosecutors. Those convicted include politicians of all stripes, irrespective of party lines.

In July 2015, Romanian Prime Minister Victor Ponta was indicted as part of a wide-ranging corruption investigation on charges including tax evasion, money laundering, conflict of interest, and making false statements while previously working as a lawyer. 

"It started because we had the right mix of external pressure from the European Commission and internal pressure from the population," Laura Stefan, an anticorruption expert and a former director in the Romanian Ministry of Justice, told the Monitor of the crackdown. "When this started, there was no trust in the state. A lot of people were skeptical, and it took a long time and a lot of strong cases to convince people."

Now, anticorruption advocates worry that the proposal to pardon thousands, if passed, could reverse some of the progress made, and argue that it should have to go through parliament. According to drafts, the initiative would decriminalize abuse of power actions causing financial damage of less than 200,000 lei ($47,500) – a crime that the current leader of the ruling Social Democrat party is accused of inciting a third party to commit. It would also pardon prisoners sentenced to less than five years for certain crimes, and cut sentences by half for all prisoners who are older than 60, are terminally ill, or have children to support, regardless of their crime.

Prison authorities say 3,700 prisoners could be freed, while the government says around 2,500 would be freed.

Liviu Dragnea, chairman of the Social Democratic Party, accused President Iohannis of "inciting social disorder and violence" by participating in the protest and described the action as the start of "a coup d'etat." 

"The President was outside the law today, targeting personal political advantages and asking for constitutional aberrations: the withdrawal of some ordinances, especially ones that had never been approved," he wrote in a Facebook post, according to Romania Insider. 

This report contains material from the Associated Press and Reuters.

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