Romanian minister quits after mass protests

Bucharest (AFP) - Romania's justice minister announced his resignation on Thursday after a planned relaxation of anti-corruption laws provoked the biggest nationwide protests since the end of communism in 1989.

The offending emergency decree issued last week was scrapped on Sunday. But protests have continued, with many 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 a news conference.

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

Prime Minister Sorin Grindeanu has refused to resign and his government easily survived a no-confidence motion in parliament 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 concerned exceeded 200,000 lei (44,000 euros, $47,500).

Separately the government, which has been in office barely a month, wants to release some 2,500 people serving prison sentences for non-violent crimes of less than five years.

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

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

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.

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

The protests have died down since Sunday but around 6,000 people, according to media reports, still braved a blizzard in downtown Bucharest on Wednesday night as well as some 3,000 in Cluj.

Several hundred government supporters also staged a demonstration outside the presidential palace, calling on the head of state Klaus Iohannis, who has supported the main demonstrations, to step down.

More protests are expected in the coming days.

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