Romania's Ponta in court on graft charges after quitting as PM

Bucharest (AFP) - Victor Ponta, who quit as Romania's prime minister this week after mass protests, made his first appearance in court Friday on corruption charges.

As demonstrators kept up their calls for an overhaul of a political system they see as corrupt, President Klaus Iohannis said the country may hold early elections or seek to form a government of technocrats.

Ponta who resigned on Wednesday after huge street protests sparked by a deadly nightclub fire, appeared at the High Court of Justice for a preliminary hearing on charges of fraud, tax evasion and money laundering.

The charges related to a period between 2007 and 2011 when he was working as a lawyer, before he became premier in 2012.

The 43-year-old former Social Democrat leader, who denies the charges, ignored questions from the large media scrum that greeted him at the court.

Friday's hearing was focused on procedural matters and dealing with lawyers' requests, a court spokesman said. No date has been set for the start of the trial, which is expected to open in the coming weeks.

Prosecutors also suspect Ponta of conflict of interest while in government, but that probe was stymied when parliament -- where his Social Democrat party holds a comfortable majority -- refused to lift his immunity from prosecution.

While he is no longer premier, Ponta remains a member of parliament and continues to enjoy immunity.

Despite his legal troubles, Ponta had previously ruled out resigning.

But last week's fire at a Bucharest nightclub -- which left 32 dead and nearly 200 injured -- prompted tens of thousands of people to take to the streets demanding a "profound change" in the government as a wave of grief and anger swept the country.

Many protesters saw the tragedy at the Colectiv club as a sign that nothing has changed in one of Europe's poorest and most corruption-prone nations. The venue was not authorised to hold concerts or stage the pyrotechnic display that sparked the fire.

Ponta's resignation has failed to stop the protests and some 10,000 demonstrators, mostly young people, took to the streets of Bucharest on Thursday, the third night running.

Under sustained pressure from protesters, the president told representatives of the country's parties that Romania may hold early elections or form a government of technocrats.

"Most political leaders are ready to discuss early parliamentary elections or a government of technocrats," Iohannis told reporters.

Also on Thursday, the president met some two dozen members of civil society groups involved in the protests, who said they want "new political figures" to take over, echoing the demonstrators' calls for a "profound change" of the political system.

Romania's next parliamentary election had been planned for November 2016. No new date has yet been set.

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