Romanian lawmakers approve bill that could close graft cases

File photo. Supporters of Liviu Dragnea, the president of the Romanian Parliament's Deputy Chamber and the leader of the main ruling party PSD (Social Democracy Party), shout slogans in front of the High Court of Cassation and Justice of Romania (ICCJ) headquarters, during the last hearing Dragnea's corruption case, in Bucharest, Romania, 15 April 2019. [Bogdan Cristel/EPA/EFE]

Romania’s lower house of parliament approved changes to the criminal codes on Wednesday (24 April) that could shut down several ongoing high-level graft cases, but opposition politicians plan to challenge the bills at the Constitutional Court.

The bills are the latest in a series of legal and personnel changes made by the ruling Social Democrats since they came to power in 2017 that are seen as threats to judicial independence and have raised concerns in the European Union, the U.S. State Department and among thousands of Romanian magistrates.

One of the changes approved on Wednesday shortens the statute of limitations covering some offences, a move that would automatically shut down a number of ongoing cases. Other amendments include lower sentences for some offences and decriminalizing negligence in the workplace.

“Romania today becomes a state in which criminals are basically in a legal haven, encouraged … by changes that overall ease and simplify the impact of the law on criminals,” opposition Save Romania Union leader Dan Barna told reporters.

Barna’s party and the main opposition Liberals both said they would challenge the changes at the Constitutional Court.

Social Democrat lawmakers initially overhauled Romania’s criminal codes last year. The European Commission said the proposed changes were a reversal of a decade of democratic and market reforms in the former communist country.

The Constitutional Court struck down many of the changes following challenges by opposition lawmakers. On Wednesday, the ruling coalition approved the codes after removing the articles already struck down by the Court.

Prosecutors have secured a spate of convictions in recent years against lawmakers, ministers and mayors, including Social Democrat leader Liviu Dragnea. Their investigations have exposed conflicts of interest, abuse of power, fraud and awarding of state contracts in exchange for bribes.

Barna’s party and the main opposition Liberals both said they would challenge the changes at the Constitutional Court.

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Social Democrat lawmakers initially overhauled Romania’s criminal codes last year. The European Commission said the proposed changes were a reversal of a decade of democratic and market reforms in the former communist country.

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The Constitutional Court struck down many of the changes following challenges by opposition lawmakers. On Wednesday, the ruling coalition approved the codes after removing the articles already struck down by the Court.

Prosecutors have secured a spate of convictions in recent years against lawmakers, ministers and mayors, including Social Democrat leader Liviu Dragnea. Their investigations have exposed conflicts of interest, abuse of power, fraud and awarding of state contracts in exchange for bribes.

Sven Giegold, spokesperson for BÜNDNIS 90/DIE GRÜNEN in the European Parliament, commented:

"The legislative changes passed today in Romania are a frontal attack on the rule of law which the European Social Democrats and Liberals cannot allow to pass. The exclusion of their Romanian member parties is now unavoidable. Suspending membership is not enough. Manfred Weber also finds himself embarrassed by EPP member UDMR who also supported today decriminalising bribes and relaxing the fight against corruption. Weber and the European People's Party have to draw conclusions from the loud criticism of politics in Romania.”

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