By Radu-Sorin Marinas
BUCHAREST (Reuters) - Romania's ombudsman went to the Constitutional Court on Friday to challenge a government decree that decriminalizes some graft offences, a move that has caused mass protests as for critics it marks a major retreat from anti-corruption reform.
The decree would decriminalize abuse-of-power offences in which the sums do not exceed 200,000 lei ($48,000), potentially scuttling an ongoing trial of the governing Social Democrat party chief and benefiting dozens of other public officials.
The government has rejected calls to rescind the decree, though cracks in cabinet unity emerged on Thursday with the resignation of a minister and a call from a vice-president of the ruling party for the measure to be withdrawn.
Ombudsman Victor Ciorbea's move echoed a plea from the Black Sea state's general prosecutor and added to a challenge by the CSM council of magistrates to the top court and by center-right President Klaus Iohannis.
The government adopted the decree in an emergency procedure late on Tuesday, saying this was needed to align ex-Communist Romania with a European Union legal directive that aims "to consolidate some aspects of presumption of innocence and the right to be present at trials".
Ciorbea said there was no urgency to the decree as the EU's deadline for compliance with the measure is April next year.
"There would have been plenty of time to discuss such things in a regular, parliamentary procedure, so no one can claim any urgency. The court will now decide whether the decree is constitutional or anti-constitutional," Ciorbea said.
The decree has triggered some of the biggest nationwide demonstrations since Communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu was overthrown in an uprising that ended with his death and his wife by firing squad on Christmas Day 1989.
Romania belongs to the European Union and NATO and hosts a U.S. anti-missile system, but has struggled to combat endemic corruption and remains the EU's second poorest member state.
The decree is due to take effect in a little over one week if no court decision to suspend it is enforced by then. The Constitutional Court had given the government, parliament and the CSM until Feb. 7 to submit their opinion.
"As soon as we get all opinions and arguments, on Feb. 7 we will decide a timing for talks," court President Valer Dorneanu told reporters.
"(The court magistrates) will respect the constitution, the laws, our internal rules and our own conscience."
By 1055 GMT, the Romanian leu was a shade firmer at 4.5131 to the euro.
(Reporting by Radu Marinas; editing by Mark Heinrich)