Thousands protest in Bucharest as investigation into former minister blocked

Thousands protest in Bucharest as investigation into former minister blocked
By Carmen Simion in Bucharest September 23, 2016

More than 2,000 people protested in Bucharest on September 22 over a recent decision by senators to block an investigation into allegations of manslaughter against senator and former interior minister Gabriel Oprea.

The September 22 protest was organised shortly after the vote. However, people gathered in front of the senate expressed their disappointment with Romania’s entire political class ahead of the December 11 parliament election. A number of politicians are being investigated by prosecutors for corruption, abuse of power and influence peddling, including former Prime Minister Victor Ponta and the head of Romania's biggest party the Social Democratic Party (PSD), Liviu Dragnea.

The National Anticorruption Directorate (DNA) initiated procedures to start the investigation into Oprea earlier this month. Prosecutors wanted to investigate whether Oprea, who was illegally using a police escort, was responsible for the death of a police officer who died while escorting the minister home in October 2015. However, senators rejected the prosecutors’ request.

The death of the police officer and the fire that claimed dozens of lives at Bucharest’s Colectiv Club a few days later prompted massive protests in the country which were followed by the resignation of Ponta and his cabinet in November 2015.

The protest took place in front of the senate. People came carrying banners that read “Nobody is above the law,” “Mandated to represent not to abuse, criminal group go to the court,” and “RIP Romanian justice”.

Some protesters expressed their disappointment with the political class in Romania and their hope for change, pledging to punish politicians at the December 11 general elections.

“I protest against the MPs who do not respect the laws and laugh at us. It is known that today’s protest is to make Oprea resign, but not only for this. I haven’t come only for this, I have come to protest against the whole political class, as they are all the same,” Abel, a 21-year old man who took part in the protest, told bne IntelliNews.

Protests are expected to continue. According to the Facebook page for the event, a new rally will be organised on September 23 in Universitatii Square in Bucharest.

According to local media, protests were also held in other Romanian cities such as Brasov and Cluj Napoca.

Earlier in the day, Oprea wrote on his Facebook page that he would ask senate speaker Calin Popescu Tariceanu to hold the vote again and for the senators to approve the prosecutors’ investigation. This is a turnaround from earlier this week, when Oprea asked the senators to turn down the prosecutors’ request.

“I know I am innocent and I am not running from justice. I also know that this file raised too many questions and I cannot ignore them,” Oprea wrote.

The case has caused some controversy in Romania, as it is one of several where the DNA appears to be moving away from clear cut cases of corruption to more complex cases that are not directly addressed by current legislation. Aside from the Opera case, another recent example is a case concerning Ponta, who is being monitored by DNA prosecutors over suspicions of influence peddling and complicity in money laundering. 

DNA prosecutors suspect that in 2012, when Ponta was prime minister and president of the PSD, he indirectly received €220,000 from businessman Sebastian Ghita in exchange for placing the latter on the electoral lists for the parliamentary elections. Ghita was eventually elected to the parliament. The money is believed to have been used to pay for former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair’s visit to speak at a conference in Bucharest.

However, many Romanians, especially those in major cities, continue to enthusiastically back the DNA and call for politicians suspected of wrongdoing to be brought to justice. 

Romanian has been the scene of a number of protests against the political class in the past year. Although they were smaller in terms of participants than those organised last year which resulted in the fall of Ponta's government, they might mobilise more people to cast their votes in the December elections.

This summer, hundreds of people took to the streets of Bucharest and other big cities to protest against a set of measures made by the parliament, such as special pensions for mayors, the decriminalisation of conflict of interest, and the decision to reject a criminal investigation into former minister Titus Corlatean for abuse of office and preventing citizens from exercising their right to vote at the 2014 presidential elections.

Oprea used to play a key role on the Romanian political scene as he was the leader of the junior party in the ruling coalition during Ponta's government, the National Union for Romania’s Progress (UNPR). He was interior minister and deputy prime minister in Ponta's cabinet. 

Oprea resigned on March 3 after the DNA launched two separate investigations against him, saying his resignation would give the party a better chance in local and parliamentary elections later this year. Oprea was strongly oriented towards the Social Democratic Party (PSD). However, since he stepped down, the UNPR merged with the newly formed People's Movement Party launched by former centre-right President Traian Basescu.

According to the latest electoral poll conducted by Avangarde in early September and released by Realitatea TV on September 11, PSD has a robust 10pp margin over its main rival, the National Liberal Party (PNL), ahead of the December general election. The PSD would get 40% of the votes in parliamentary elections. The party’s lead has risen slightly from the 9pp in Avantgarde’s August poll, which put the PSD on 38% versus the PNL’s 29%. ALDE, led by Tariceanu, is rated at a robust 7%, constant from the previous poll.