By Luiza Ilie
BUCHAREST (Reuters) - Romania's chief anti-corruption prosecutor said on Thursday her team saw an sharp increase in political pressure to drop cases while they were investigating high-ranking officials last year, adding this could be a measure of her department's success.
There has been growing concern about respect for the rule of law in Romania, one of the European Union's poorest and most corrupt states, whose parliament tried to pass a law last year shielding lawmakers from graft investigations.
Top-level convictions such as that of leftist former prime minister Adrian Nastase drew accusations from ruling officials that prosecutors and judges were acting on orders from center-right political leaders. The European Commission and United States urged Romanian politicians last year to stop pressuring the judiciary.
"2013 was the year when public pressure on prosecutors registered a strongly ascending path," Laura Codruta Kovesi told a conference to present her department's 2013 results.
"It is encouraging that this prompted an unprecedented reaction from civil society and international observers."
Romania ranks behind only Greece and Bulgaria in terms of corruption in the 28-nation EU, according to Transparency International, and the European Commission has its justice system under special monitoring.
More than 1,000 people were convicted on corruption charges last year in the country, a 41 percent annual rise.
People sent to trial included six ministers and parliamentarians, five county council heads, 34 mayors and deputy mayors, as well as judges, lawyers and managers of state-owned firms.
"Although we have been accused many times of instrumenting cases based on political orders, court rulings have proved they (the cases) were based on solid evidence and not made-up crimes," Kovesi said.
"Recent attacks and regular outside pressures on the judiciary ... are in fact a measure of its success."
Parliament approved a bill in December to protect lawmakers from corruption investigations linked to public office. Although the country's top court overturned the legislation, it will still return to parliament for further debate.
Earlier this week prosecutors said they would launch criminal investigations against former finance minister Daniel Chitoiu and another ex-minister on separate suspicions of abuse of power.
(Reporting by Luiza Ilie; editing by Matthias Williams and Mark Heinrich)