BUCHAREST, Romania (AP) — Romania's government adopted an emergency ordinance late Tuesday to decriminalize official misconduct, dealing a blow to a yearslong drive to curb corruption in the eastern European country.
Justice Minister Florin Iordache said the measure will decriminalize cases of official misconduct in which the financial damage is valued at less than 200,000 lei ($47,800). Tens of thousands of Romanians protested against the ordinance in recent weeks, saying it would weaken anti-graft efforts.
More protests erupted in cities across Romania after the announcement. Outside the main government offices in the capital, demonstrators called the ruling Social Democratic Party "the red plague." Some chanted "You did it at night, like thieves," referring to the late hour the ordinance was passed.
"This measure will render the anti-corruption fight irrelevant," anti-corruption chief prosecutor Laura Codruta Kovesi told The Associated Press
She said the National Anticorruption Directorate had prosecuted 1,170 cases of abuse in office during the past three years with damages worth 1 billion euros ($1.07 billion). Kovesi has led a tough anti-corruption fight against senior politicians and other officials, earning praise from the U.S., Canada and the European Union.
President Klaus Iohannis, who has limited powers and doesn't oversee the government, called the measure's adoption "a day of mourning for the rule of law ... which has received a grave blow from the enemies of justice."
"From today onward, my mission is to re-establish the rule of law. I will do everything I can to make Romania a country free of corruption, until the last day of my mandate," the president said.
Iordache said a proposal to pardon thousands of prisoners that the government says will ease overcrowding in prisons would be sent for approval to Parliament, where the government has a majority.
The anti-corruption agency said the decriminalization measure would "encourage the abusive behavior of public workers, dishonesty, (and) immorality." About one-third of the agency's prosecutions are related to abuse of office.
The agency said such a development would benefit both future offenders and those currently being investigated.
Iordache denied the proposal was designed to benefit politicians, a number of whom have been caught up in the country's fight against high-level corruption.