By Luiza Ilie
BUCHAREST (Reuters) - When fire tore through a Bucharest nightclub in 2015, victims were rushed to the city’s Floreasca hospital - but its newly-built, multi-million-euro burns unit was standing idle and could help no one.
Sixty-four people eventually died and the Social Democrat government was brought down within days by popular anger over the failure to enforce fire-safety regulations at the Colectiv nightclub, a failure blamed on endemic corruption and negligence.
The reins of government were handed temporarily to a team of technocrats and Romania’s special anti-corruption prosecutors turned their sights on the burns unit.
It had been built without emergency exits and lacked trained staff and had been left unused. But prosecutors believed someone had stood to gain from the expensive project, if not the injured clubbers.
After a closer look at the books, they launched a criminal investigation in November on suspicion that those in charge had knowingly overpaid for dozens of pieces of equipment worth hundreds of thousands of euros, all from one company.
Corrupt procurement practices are rife in Romania’s public sector, particularly hospitals, and prosecutors say they stand to get worse under a decree that the Social Democrats – voted back into office in December – issued on Feb. 1.
The government order has triggered some of the biggest demonstrations since the overthrow in 1989 of Nicolae Ceausescu, under whose communist dictatorship petty bribery was a way of life.
The decree decriminalizes abuse-of-power offences where the sums involved are less than 200,000 lei ($48,000). And it narrows the definition of conflict of interest, making it no longer punishable for a public official to favor a business partner when deciding who should win a contract.
"In the case of abuse of power, public procurement contracts could be split into smaller sums and awarded separately," said Livia Saplacan, spokeswoman for Romania's anti-corruption prosecution unit, the DNA.
"Until the decree, this was a very clear crime to investigate."
ABUSE OF OFFICE
The DNA is currently investigating some 2,000 cases of alleged abuse of office, and fears many may now be halted.
Anti-corruption legal expert Laura Stefan said the 200,000-lei threshold would make corruption harder to investigate.
More worryingly, she said, the decree cuts the maximum prison sentences for abuse-of-office offences involving more than 200,000 lei from seven years to three.
"With prison sentences of less than five years, investigators cannot use technical surveillance or wiretapping, nor temporary arrest warrants," Stefan told Reuters, making it more difficult to amass evidence.
Protesters say the government order is tailor-made to amnesty dozens of public officials across all parties, not least the leader of the ruling party, Liviu Dragnea, who is on trial for abuse of office. The sum of money in his case falls under the new 200,000-lei threshold.
The government denies this, saying the decree and a related prisoner pardon bill are designed to ease overcrowding in jails and bring the criminal code into line with recent constitutional court rulings.
"My God, corruption has been a way of life for so long, we’ve had enough," 62-year-old pensioner Natalia Pop said as she joined tens of thousands of protesters on Wednesday in the capital.
"Now they want to bend the laws to suit corruption – where’s that going to take us?"
The latest protests have dwarfed those that followed the Colectiv fire. Then, the Social Democrats quickly stepped aside - elections were only a year away and the party stood to gain little from clinging to power.
This time, they are barely one month into a four-year mandate, with a comfortable majority in parliament after winning an election on a promise to raise pensions and wages. In one of the poorest countries in the European Union, many worry more about how to feed their families than the cost of corruption.
Prime Minister Sorin Grindeanu, handpicked by Dragnea to head the government after Dragnea himself was barred by a previous vote-rigging conviction, has ruled out withdrawing the decree.
It will enter into force next week, but faces a legal challenge in the Constitutional Court.
Some analysts say the government hopes the court will overturn the most contentious elements of the decree. That may take the sting out of the protests, without the government having to perform a damaging U-turn.
"I think there is some sort of understanding that the government will not withdraw its decree and the Constitutional Court will reject at least parts of it, including the contested abuse-of-office article," said Sergiu Miscoiu, professor of political science at the Babes-Bolyai University.
"We are outside any constitutional framework," he added.
"This goes to show how systems, in general but ours in particular, are extremely vulnerable to authoritarian pressure."
Mirela Motatu, a 45-year-old dressmaker who joined Thursday’s protest in Bucharest, said she had been spooked by the decree, which bypassed parliamentary debate.
"If they can issue a law overnight they can do it again," she said. "We went to bed in 2017 and woke up in 1989."
(Writing by Matt Robinson; editing by Andrew Roche)