Following protests, Romania will repeal corruption decree

The controversial emergency decree would have, among other things, pardoned government officials for offenses that involved less than 200,000 lei, or about $47,800.

Vadim Ghirda/AP
A girl holds a banner that reads: "We have the right to justice!" during a protest in Bucharest, Romania, Saturday.

Following widespread protests across the country over the past few days, Romania will repeal a controversial decree to decriminalize certain kinds of government corruption 

The demonstrations took place in around 70 cities across the country, with an estimated 330,000 people participating, according to police. The protests are some of the largest since Nicolae Ceaușescu was removed from power in 1989.

While many protesters hailed the decree's repeal as a step in the right direction, anticorruption protests are still expected to continue in Bucharest and other cities.

"I feel a bit better, but it isn't enough," Mihai Saru, a student protester, told The New York Times. "They lost our trust when they released this emergency ordinance in the night. How do we know it won't happen again in two weeks, a month? But tonight is a little victory."

Romania's government introduced the controversial rule late Tuesday night as an "emergency decree," which does not require parliamentary approval. The measure would have, among other things, decriminalized corruption offenses worth less than 200,000 lei (about $47,800), releasing current officials currently under trail or already in jail for such sums.

"The damage it will do, if it comes into force, can never be repaired," Laura Kövesi, chief prosecutor of the National Anti-Corruption Directorate had told the BBC.

One official who would have directly benefitted from the decree is Liviu Dragnea, the head of the governing Social Democratic Party, who is currently ineligible for running for the position of prime minister because of an ongoing corruption trial and for electoral fraud, of which he was convicted last year. If the decree had entered into effect, he would have been off the automatically off the hook for a potential prison sentence because the charges against him involve less than 200,000 lei.

The government said the decree was intended to relieve prison overcrowding by pardoning 3,700 people and to realign certain existing laws with Romania's constitution. But as protests began to grow, many officials began to speak out against the measure, including Romanian president Klaus Iohannis and business minister Florin Jianu. Mr. Jianu resigned in protest earlier this week.

Romania has had a long and sordid history associated with government corruption, but anti-corruption forces have increasingly taken hold in the Eastern European country since it joined the European Union in 2007. As Kit Gillet reported for The Christian Science Monitor in 2015:

Even a few years ago, Romania's powerful and well-connected were able to line their own pockets with impunity, earning the country deserved notoriety as one of Europe's most graft-ridden nations.

But today, in a perfect storm of external pressure from the European Union and internal public anger, Romania's crackdown on corruption is almost routine. With an independent and tenacious special prosecutor's office driving the effort, the country is making dramatic strides in holding elites just as accountable as the common man.

"In Romania, the political cleavage is not left against right, as it is in Western Europe," said Sorin Ionita, a political analyst for the Expert Forum in Bucharest, told The New York Times. "It is corruption versus anti-corruption."

Prime Minister Sorin Grindeanu said the government would hold an emergency meeting on Sunday to repeal the emergency decree, and the Constitutional Court is expected to rule whether the measure was even legal next week.

But while many protesters were pleased by Mr. Grindeanu's announcement, others continue to prepare for more anticorruption fights still to come.

"They must go. This is an incompetent government," said one protester, who gave his name as Gabriel. "We don't want to see this repeated. We won't give up."

This article contains material from Reuters and the Associated Press.

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