(Adds protest numbers)
By Radu-Sorin Marinas
BUCHAREST Feb 3 Romania's ombudsman has
challenged in the Constitutional Court a cabinet decree passed
earlier in the week decriminalising some graft offences, in an
apparent watering down of an anti-corruption drive that sparked
mass protests and international condemnation.
The decree would decriminalise abuse-of-power offences in
which the sums do not exceed 200,000 lei ($48,000), potentially
scuttling an ongoing trial of the governing Social Democrat
party chief and benefiting dozens of other public officials.
Tens of thousands took to the streets of Bucharest and 70
other cities and towns across Romania on Friday in the fourth
day of nationwide, peaceful protests in which people have
demanded an immediate halt to the legislation.
"Repeal it, repeal it," "Corruption kills," read banners
carried by demonstrators in Bucharest's main square in front of
the government building, many waving the national red, yellow
and blue flag.
About 120,000 gathered in Bucharest alone, according to riot
police, and overall about 300,000 protested around the country
and in several western European capitals.
The government has firmly rejected calls to rescind the
decree, though cracks in cabinet unity emerged on Thursday with
the resignation of a minister and a call from a vice-president
of the ruling party for the measure to be withdrawn.
Ombudsman Victor Ciorbea's move echoed a plea from the Black
Sea state's general prosecutor and added to a challenge by the
CSM council of magistrates to the top court and by centre-right
President Klaus Iohannis.
General Prosecutor Augustin Lazar said on Friday he welcomed
the Constitutional Court challenge and that his office had its
own case before the Court of Appeals (CA).
Experts say the CA itself could suspend enforcement of the
decree as it can rule on the legality of such measures. The
decree is due to take effect in a little over one week.
The government adopted the measure in an emergency procedure
late on Tuesday, saying this was needed to align ex-Communist
Romania with a European Union legal directive to member states
that aims "to consolidate some aspects of presumption of
innocence and the right to be present at trials".
It has cited a need to ease overcrowding in Romanian prisons
as further grounds for the "proposed legislative measures", as
the government refers to the decree.
Ciorbea said there was no urgency to the decree as the EU's
deadline for compliance with the measure is April next year.
"There would have been plenty of time to discuss such things
in a regular, parliamentary procedure, so no one can claim any
urgency. The court will now decide whether the decree is
constitutional or anti-constitutional," he said.
The decree has triggered some of the biggest nationwide
demonstrations since Communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu was
overthrown in an uprising that ended with his death and his wife
by firing squad on Christmas Day 1989.
Eight Western powers including Germany and the United States
have said they are deeply concerned the decree could undermine
Romania's partnerships in the EU and NATO. Romania belongs to
both, and hosts a U.S. anti-missile system, but has struggled to
combat endemic graft and remains among the poorest EU states.
The Constitutional Court had given the government,
parliament and the CSM until Feb. 7 to submit their opinion. -
The government said their legislative changes were also meant
to alleviate overcrowding in Romanian prisons.
"As soon as we get all opinions and arguments, on Feb. 7 we
will decide a timing for talks," court President Valer Dorneanu
"(The court magistrates) will respect the constitution, the
laws, our internal rules and our own conscience."
(Editing by Mark Heinrich)