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Romanian Minister Resigns After Anti-graft Protests

Protesters warm up next to a burning kiosk after minor clashes erupted during a protest in Bucharest, Romania, Feb. 2, 2017.

A Romanian cabinet minister resigned on Thursday over a government decree that could effectively amnesty dozens of officials accused of corruption, a move that has triggered countrywide protests.

More than 250,000 Romanians came out in protest late on Wednesday, in the biggest anti-corruption demonstration since the fall of communism in Romania in 1989.

The decree, which decriminalizes a number of graft offenses, was hastily adopted by the cabinet late on Tuesday evening, barely a month since the Social Democrat-led government of Prime Minister Sorin Grindeanu took power.

Romania's top judicial watchdog has filed a constitutional court challenge to the decree, which will take effect in 10 days unless blocked by a court ruling.

Florin Jianu, Romania's minister of business, trade and entrepreneurship, announced on Facebook that he was resigning.

It is the "ethical 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?" he wrote. "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?"

Grindeanu showed no sign of giving ground, sending a letter on Wednesday to European Commission head Jean-Claude Juncker detailing the reasons why his cabinet chose to pass the decree and a draft bill granting prison pardons for several offences.

The government says it is designed to ease prison overcrowding and bring the criminal code into line with recent constitutional court rulings.

Juncker on Wednesday said he was watching developments with "great concern", warning that the fight against corruption in Romania "needs to be advanced, not undone."

Six western states including Germany and the United States have also criticized the government.

"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 untransparently, then tomorrow they will adopt others and so on. We will wake up without institutions overnight."

Protests were set to continue on Thursday in capital Bucharest and dozens of cities across the European Union state, where a crackdown on corruption over the past four years has uncovered myriad conflicts of interest and a pattern of local officials handing out state-funded contracts in exchange for bribes.