BUCHAREST, Romania (AP) — Romania's government decriminalized official misconduct overnight Wednesday, defying mass protests and warnings from prosecutors and the president that the move will reverse the country's fight against corruption.
An emergency ordinance decriminalizing abuse in office was published at 3 a.m. in the official government monitor and will soon automatically become law.
The speed with which the center-left government approved the proposal and the hour of its action alarmed critics. The coalition government has been in office for less than a month and the ordinance benefits its allies and Romanian officials facing corruption charges.
"It shows that the government is willing to use backdoor methods with no scrutiny or checks and balances in order to protect and promote itself," said Dan Brett, an associate professor at the Open University.
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."
In recent years, Romania has been touted as a regional leader for targeting the rich and the powerful in a crackdown on corruption. But the drive has proved unpopular with politicians.
Leaders of the center-left Social Democratic Party and the junior Alliance of Democratic Liberals, which form the current coalition government, both face corruption charges that bar them from serving as ministers.
Social Democrat chairman Liviu Dragnea was unable to become prime minister because in April 2016 he received a two-year suspended jail sentence for vote rigging. On Tuesday, he went on trial for abuse of power while he was president of the Teleorman local council from 2006 to 2012. He denies wrongdoing.
Justice Minister Florin Iordache said the emergency ordinance will decriminalize cases of official misconduct in which the damages are valued at less than 200,000 lei ($47,800).
The government on Tuesday evening also sent to Parliament a proposal that will pardon thousands of prisoners. It says the measure, which will free about 3,000 convicts, will help reduce overcrowding in prisons.
Prisoners interviewed by The Associated Press on Tuesday scoffed at the idea, saying the changes are likely to benefit senior officials rather than ordinary convicts.
Protests erupted in cities around the country after the emergency pardon plan was made public last month. The chief anti-corruption prosecutor, Laura Codruta Kovesi, said it "will render the anti-corruption fight irrelevant."
The National Anticorruption Directorate has prosecuted 1,170 cases of abuse in office during the past three years with damages worth euros 1 billion euros ($1.07 billion.), just under one-third of all of its cases, she said.
Both the EU and Germany criticized the Romanian government's move.
European Commission Vice President Maros Sefcovic told reporters that the bloc is "following the latest developments in Romania with growing concern."
"The fight against corruption needs to be advanced and not undone," Sefcovic said.
German foreign ministry spokesman Martin Schaefer said Berlin also is paying attention.
"With these decisions the Romanian government has obviously ignored massive concerns on the part of the president, the judiciary and large parts of the population," he said.
Brett said the Social Democratic Party moved fast because "they consider that the world's attention is on the U.S. at the moment and so international condemnation and pressure will not be forthcoming."
"As we've seen in Poland and Hungary, the slide into authoritarianism isn't overnight, but slowly one law at a time," Brett said.
Mutler reported from London.