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Protests Push Romania to Repeal Corruption Decree


Tens of thousands of people shine lights from mobile phones and torches during a protest in front of the government building in Bucharest, Romania, Sunday, Feb. 5, 2017.

Romania's justice minister said he will publish details of a new bill on the criminal code Monday, a day after Romania's Social Democrat government repealed a contentious Cabinet decree that would have shielded many politicians from prosecution for corruption.

The move by the government of Prime Minister Sorin Grindeanu came as a huge throng of demonstrators jammed Bucharest's Victory Square for a sixth straight night of protests, widely seen as the largest anti-government rallies since the 1989 fall of communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu.

Hundreds of thousands of protesters continued to fill the square late into the night, despite the government annulling the controversial decree that would have decriminalized some graft offenses.

The decree, adopted in a late-night Cabinet session last Tuesday, would have exempted officials from corruption charges if the ill-gotten gains were valued at less than $47,800.

The government claimed the measure was needed to reduce prison overcrowding in one of Europe's most corrupt countries. However, furious critics -- many of whom packed the streets of Bucharest in the past week -- saw the measure as legitimizing criminal activity for people with political sway.

The repeal, announced late Saturday, did nothing to reduce Sunday's protest turnout, and appeared to do little to ease tensions in the capital.

A giant laser illuminated government headquarters in Bucharest with the words "Do Not Give Up" and "Resignation," as some protesters voiced doubts that the repeal would become official, and others called for the Social Democrat government to resign.

One of the decree's chief critics, President Klaus Iohannis, appeared at an anti-corruption rally two weeks ago and publicly urged Grindeanu's government to scrap the measure. On Sunday, a small group of pro-government protesters gathered at the presidential palace in Bucharest, where they denounced him as a "traitor."

Had the decree and a companion measure taken effect as planned on February 10, critics say one of its early and key beneficiaries may have been Social Democrat party leader Liviu Dragnea. The politician is currently on trial for allegedly using his political influence to obtain state salaries for two people employed at his party headquarters between 2006 and 2013.

Analysts say dozens of other public officials may also have gained from the decree, which critics contend would have severely damaged the country's nascent reformist efforts.

A push launched in 2014 by Romania's newly-formed National Anti-Corruption Directorate has led to abuse of power convictions for nearly 2,000 people, including judges, politicians, prosecutors and other public officials.