Romanians dig in over corruption standoff

Bucharest (AFP) - Hundreds of thousands of demonstrators took to the streets in Romania on Friday over what they see as an alarming backsliding in the fight against corruption, amid a political crisis that shows no sign of easing.

Between 200,000-250,000 protested nationwide, according to media, in a fourth night of demonstrations against an emergency government decree decriminalising a string of graft offences.

A Wednesday march drew up to 300,000 people for the biggest protest since the fall of communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu in 1989.

"The government wants to legalise white collar crime, which is really insidious," complained Sergiu, a 43-year-old bank worker during the rally in the capital Bucharest.

He and his wife Ana-Maria insisted they would protest every night "until the (decree) text is repealed."

Daniela, a pharmacist aged 50, said it felt "like December 1989" as Romanians took to the streets just as they had a quarter of a century ago in forcing Ceausescu from power.

- 'Undermine rule of law' -

"We will no longer accept being treated like sheep by an abusive government," Daniela insisted.

Marchers cheered several youths who bore a coffin bearing the inscription "Romanian justice" while some protesters gave a rousing rendition of the national anthem.

Smaller marches brought together several tens of thousands of protesters in some 50 cities nationwide including Cluj, Sibiu and Timisoara, media reported.

Demonstrators have vowed to rally daily until February 10 when the contentious decree, issued by the left-wing government late Tuesday, is due to enter into force.

A major demonstration is scheduled for Saturday afternoon involving a march on parliament.

The new measure reduces sentences for abuse of power and makes them punishable by prison only if sums involved exceed 44,000 euros ($47,500).

A separate bill, to go before parliament, would free some 2,500 prisoners on short sentences.

The left-wing government says it is bringing legislation into line with the constitution and wants to reduce overcrowding in prisons.

But critics say the main beneficiaries will be officials and politicians ensnared in an anti-corruption drive of recent years that has won Bucharest kudos abroad.

On Friday, the national ombudsman vowed to invoke the constitutional court, saying it was unclear why the abuse of power decree was urgent.

Between 2014 and 2016, 1,171 people were convicted of abuse of power and prosecutors are investigating more than 2,000 other cases.

In 2015, 27 officials, including then prime minister Victor Ponta, five ministers and 16 lawmakers went on trial.

Many of the officials caught up are from the ruling Social Democrats (PSD), which accuses the anti-corruption agency of conducting a witch hunt.

Washington added to the chorus of alarm Thursday, saying it was "deeply concerned" that the new measures "undermine rule of law and weaken accountability for financial and corruption-related crimes".

The US State Department urged Romania to reverse the legislation to retain international credibility.

Earlier this week, European Commission head Jean-Claude Juncker and his deputy Frans Timmermans warned against "backtracking" on graft -- only a week after an EU report praised the government's efforts.

- PM defiant -

But the government has remained defiant.

"We took a decision in the government and we are going to press ahead," Prime Minister Sorin Grindeanu said Thursday.

PSD leader Liviu Dragnea, currently on trial for abuse of power involving a sum that falls below the new ceiling, hit out at a "campaign of lies and disinformation".

Dragnea, 54, is seen as the real power within the PSD. A previous conviction for voter fraud bars him from office.

Centre-right President Klaus Iohannis, who has been in an open battle with Dragnea, has welcomed the protests and sought a constitutional court block on the government's decrees.

Patriarch Daniel of Romania's Orthodox Christian Church, which remains one of the country's most respected institutions and which normally stays out of politics, also weighed in.

He regretted via Facebook that "people no longer open their souls to peace, which comes from God and which eases selfish passions like abuse of power and (the desire for) unlimited material goods."