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Romanian minister quits amid backlash against failed anti-corruption laws

Romania's justice minister Florin Iordache admitted public pressure compelled him to step down. Photograph: (AFP)

AFP Bucharest, Romania Feb 09, 2017, 10.38 PM (IST)

Romania's justice minister resigned on Thursday, becoming the first major political casualty of a government effort to roll back anti-corruption laws which backfired, sparking nationwide outrage.

The offending emergency decree issued last week was scrapped on Sunday in the face of the country's biggest protests since the end of communism in 1989. Those protests have continued, with many now calling for the entire left-wing government to quit.

The minister, Florin Iordache, defended the legislation, saying all his "initiatives were legal and constitutional". 

"But despite that, public opinion did not consider it sufficient, and that's why I have decided to submit my resignation," the 56-year-old told reporters.

Hundreds of thousands of Romanians have protested over the past week, culminating in half a million people in the streets on Sunday, according to media estimates.

Iordache is from the ruling Social Democrats (PSD), which won a thumping election victory only in December. His successor has not yet been named.

Prime Minister Sorin Grindeanu's government easily survived a no-confidence motion on Wednesday thanks to its solid majority in parliament.

The proposed changes would have made abuse of power a crime punishable by jail only if the amount of money involved exceeded 200,000 lei (44,000 euros, $47,500).

On Thursday, a much smaller but fiery crowd of 2,500 still turned out to protest in central Bucharest, waving Romanian and European Union flags and holding placards reading "We are fighting for principles and values".

Foreign Minister Teodor Melescanu sought to reassure the public Thursday that the government would listen and take their concerns into account when considering future legal amendments.

"This process will take time," he added.

However the government is separately aiming to change the law to release 2,500 people serving prison sentences for non-violent crimes of less than five years.

Grindeanu has said the aim was to bring penal law into line with the constitution and to reduce overcrowding in prisons.

But critics see the move as a brazen attempt to let off the many lawmakers who have been ensnared in a major anti-corruption drive in recent years.

The head of the country's anti-corruption force told AFP in an interview that the fight against graft was far from being won, despite the government's withdrawal of the decree.

The "danger is not ruled out" because such attempts to change laws are likely to happen again, said Laura Codruta Kovesi, chief prosecutor of the National Anti-Corruption Directorate.

European Commission Vice President Frans Timmermans said Wednesday that after the recent "incredible progress", Bucharest should not start "running in the other direction".

The US State Department also expressed its deep concern. Corruption has long been a major problem since Romania joined the European Union as its second-poorest member in 2007.

(AFP)

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