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Romania's ex-PM appears in court on corruption charges amid protests

Romania's outgoing PM Victor Ponta has appeared in court in an on-going trial over alleged tax evasion and money laundering. The hearing comes amid anti-government protests after a blaze left 30 dead in Bucharest.

Former Romanian Prime Minister Victor Ponta appeared Friday before the High Court for Cassation and Justice.

Ponta, who

resigned along with his government

on Wednesday, faces corruption charges, including money-laundering, conflict of interest, tax evasion and making false statements.

Anti-corruption

prosecutors formally indicted Ponta

in September, although the prosecutors' office said he could retain his position throughout the trial.

While Romanian lawmakers typically enjoy immunity under the nation's laws, Ponta will not, since the crimes he is accused of committing took place before he assumed office in 2012.

Upon entering the court, Ponta declined to comment, saying he was now "a private citizen."

Watch video 01:26

Romanian PM Ponta quits after protests

According to prosecutors, the former premier forged expense claims amounting to at least 55,000 euros ($63,000) from political ally Dan Sova's law firm, where he pretended to work as a lawyer to justify receiving payments.

'Down with parliament'

Meanwhile, Romanian demonstrators took to the streets on Thursday for the

third consecutive day of mass anti-government protests.

The protesters - who shouted "Down with Parliament" and "We want a free Romania" - want officials to be held accountable for the

blaze that erupted in a Bucharest nightclub

on October 31, leaving more than 30 dead and over 180 injured, most in a critical condition.

"In a country where parliament refuses to lift the immunity of a prime minister accused of corruption…we have to ask ourselves how it was possible that the Ponta government survived for so long," said commentator Iulian Anghel in the Romanian periodical Ziarul Financiar, according to AFP news agency.

Hans G. Klemm, the US ambassador to Romania, praised the protests, saying they were "both dynamic and very moving."

"We applaud the nonviolent exercise of freedom of speech and assembly, and encourage all Romanians to stay engaged in the civic process," said Klemm.

The ambassador's statements come as Romanian President Klaus Iohannis said he was reaching out to civic organizations and NGOs to address the country's political climate.

ls/rc (AP, AFP, Reuters)

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