BUCHAREST, Romania (AP) — Romania's new decree diluting the country's corruption law ignited a furor Thursday, prompting strong criticism from home and abroad and a declaration from the president that he would ask judges to declare it unconstitutional.
Tens of thousands protested for the third night in Bucharest, the capital, and thousands more in some 20 other Romanian cities, calling for the government to resign after issuing the watered-down emergency degree a day earlier.
But Prime Minister Sorin Grindeanu said the government would not repeal the decree, deepening the political crisis.
President Klaus Iohannis announced he will take the decree to the Constitutional Court, the last legal resort to stop the law by the ruling center-left Social Democrats, whose leader, Liviu Dragnea, is among those with a corruption conviction.
Protester Florin Varlan, 42, said Thursday evening that he would continue to protest, after Dragnea "came out today and showed he understood nothing."
The ordinance decriminalizes official misconduct if the funds involved are less than 200,000 lei ($47,800). Critics say the measure helps government allies and other officials facing corruption charges get out of prison or clear their records and claim it will encourage more officials to steal on the job.
Dragnea defended the decree, which did not go through parliament, saying it would not "free corrupt people." Dragnea also called Iohannis "the moral author" of the sporadic violence that broke out late Wednesday between police and protesters.
Dragnea, who has a two-year suspended prison sentence for vote rigging, says he wants a retrial. The conviction bars him from serving as prime minister, which he says is unfair.
In a statement, the U.S., Germany, Canada, Finland, the Netherlands and France said Romania's government had undermined "progress on rule of law and the fight against corruption over the past ten years."
European Commission vice president Frank Timmermans urged the Romanian government on Thursday to "urgently reconsider" the decree, warning that if it is adopted, it could affect the EU funds that Romania gets.
U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner said Romania's international credibility and attractiveness for foreign investment were at stake.
"The United States is deeply concerned about the Government of Romania's recent measures that undermine rule of law and weaken accountability for financial and corruption-related crimes," Toner said.
Even some prominent Social Democrats were upset with the decree.
Business Environment Minister Florin Jianu announced his resignation. Mihai Chirica, the mayor of Iasi, urged the government to scrap the decree and send another bill on the topic to Parliament for debate. He also said Justice Minister Florin Iordache should resign.
Iordache, who has come under heavy fire for publishing the decree, has temporarily handed his duties over to a subordinate, a spokeswoman said.