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Romania's political crisis deepens as ombudsman appeals to high court

The last time Romania saw such large-scale protests was in 1989 - when communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu was toppled. This week's government decree reminded many of the corruption-ridden days of the old regime.

Watch video 01:15

Political crisis in Romania continues

Romania's political crisis deepened on Friday as the country's ombudsman appealed to the Constitutional Court to overturn a government decree that decriminalizes some corruption offenses - a move that has sparked the country's largest mass protests since the antigovernment revolt in 1989 that brought down a communist dictator.

Some 200,000-250,000 protested nationwide, according to local media, in a fourth night of demonstrations against the government decree.

The decree calls for decriminalizing abuse-of-power offenses in which sums are below 200,000 lei ($48,000). It also narrows the definition of conflict of interest, now making it legal 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."

In the courts

General Prosecutor Augustin Lazar welcomed the appeal filed Friday by Ombudsman Victor Ciorbea with the Constitutional Court, and Lazar said his office has its own case before the Court of Appeals (CA).

Experts said the CA itself could suspend enforcement of the decree as it can rule on the legality of such measures. The decree is due to take effect in a little more than a week.

"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."

The government has rejected calls to rescind the decree, but cracks in Cabinet unity appeared on Thursday with the resignation of a minister and a call from the vice president of the ruling Social Democrats to withdraw the decree.

Watch video 00:29

Romania: Third night of protests against corruption decriminalization

Toppling of Ceausescu

Nearly 30 years ago mass protests brought down the regime of Nicolae Ceausescu as a wave of anti-communism swept across Eastern Europe in 1989. Petty bribery was a way of life under the regime. Ceausescu and wife, Elena, were executed by firing squad shortly after being overthrown.

The latest government order has triggered some of the largest demonstrations in Romania since communism was overthrown.

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." 

bik/sms (Reuters, AP, AFP)

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