Thousands of people protested in Romania’s biggest cities on January 18 against the government’s decision to amend criminal legislation.
Decrees drafted by the justice ministry envisage pardons for some sentences and the redefinition of some offences, and would represent a step backwards in Romania’s drive to fight corruption.
Prison sentences shorter than five years should be pardoned, according to a draft bill from the justice ministry. Prisoners older than 60 years and pregnant women would see their sentences halved. At the same time, abuse of office could be redefined, raising concern that prosecutors may drop charges against a number of politicians under investigation for corruption.
A possible pardon and amnesty bill has been a hot issue in Romania in the weeks since the new government was installed. Justice Minister Florin Iordache has made it clear from the very beginning that he would not oppose the introduction of an amnesty and pardon bill, increasing worries that the country could backslide in its anti-corruption fight. The expected change in the legislation comes before the leader of the ruling Social Democratic Party (PSD), Liviu Dragnea, is due to be tried for alleged instigation to abuse of office.
Around 3,000 people gathered in Universitate square in Bucharest and then marched to the government. The participants carried banners that read “Take your hands off the justice”, “No to amnesty” and “In a democracy thieves stay in prison” and chanted slogans such as “PSD, the red plague” and “Dragnea, don’t forget, Romania is not yours”.
The protesters expressed their disappointment with the government’s decision to amend the legislation and hope that things will change. “I am protesting against their plans regarding pardon and amnesty. This will result in setting free those who stole from us,” a protester told bne Intellinews. “They have invested the money in infrastructure and why not in upgrading the prisons which they claim are overcrowded,” he added.
Protesters also asked for the ordinances not to be adopted under emergency procedures, pointing out that freeing criminals is not an emergency.
Similar protests were also organised in Cluj Napoca, Sibiu, Iasi and Craiova, according to Mediafax news agency.
According to governmental sources quoted by Hotnews.ro on January 17, the government was planning to adopt changes to criminal legislation through an emergency ordinance on January 18. The changes would have led to pardons for some sentences, while legislation related to abuse of office, negligence while performing work duties and conflict of interest would have been changed, the sources claimed. Adopting the changes through an emergency ordinance would have meant that they became effective immediately.
Prime Minister Sorin Grindeanu denied any such plans, saying that discussions on the emergency ordinance regarding pardons and changes to the Criminal Code were not on the government's agenda on January 18.
However, the government's plans might have been changed by President Klaus Iohannis's decision to attend the government meeting. According to Romanian legislation, the president can preside over government meetings.
Iohannis reportedly decided to attend the meeting following the information published by local media the previous day. The president said that Grindeanu had made a commitment that the amnesty and pardon issues would not be introduced “overnight” in any government meeting, but publicly presented after the government drafts them.
According to the draft legislation on pardons, which has been published for debate on the justice ministry's website, prison sentences shorter than five years will be fully pardoned, while people over 60, pregnant women and people looking after children under five years old would have their sentences halved. The pardon would not apply to recidivists or people convicted for murder, serious bodily harm, deprivation of freedom, blackmailing, rape, sexual aggression, robbery, giving and taking bribes, influence peddling and disclosure of state secrets or other serious crimes. The ordinance is expected to come into force on February 18.
The changes to the criminal legislation seem intended to bring benefits to some politicians who either have been convicted or are under investigation for corruption.
According to the proposed amendments to the Criminal Code, the abuse of office offence will be redefined so that it will be a criminal offence only if the damage caused exceeds RON200,000 (€44,500) and the damaged party has made a complaint. This would seriously impact the activity of the National Anticorruption Directorate (DNA). Up to 42% of the cases investigated by the DNA concern abuse of office, the DNA head, Laura Codruta Kovesi, said in June last year in an interview with Digi24 TV channel. In 2015 alone, the damage stemming from this offence was €620mn, she claimed at the time.
Dragnea would benefit from the new legislation, as the damage caused in the case in which he has been indicted for instigation to abuse of office stands at RON108,612. The DNA claimed last year that between 2006 and 2013, Dragnea, who at the time was the head of Teleorman county council and the leader of the local PSD branch, ordered the executive manager of Teleorman's general directorate of social assistance and child protection to violate her duties by keeping two employees on the payroll even though they did not come to work. In fact, the two employees worked for the PSD's Teleorman branch. Dragnea has already been given a two-year suspended sentence for voter manipulation in a separate case.
Last year, the Romanian Constitutional Court (CCR) ruled that abuse of office should remain a criminal offence, but narrowed the definition to where suspects have broken the law rather than simply performing their job badly.
In a January 18 statement, the DNA criticised the amendments to the criminal legislation. “The RON200,000 cap is no way connected to the decision of the Constitutional Court related to this offence, although the explanatory note invokes this aspect. The cap has been decided arbitrarily without being justified in any way and there is a possibility that it may favour certain persons,” the Romanian anti-corruption body said.
The DNA also noted that the abuse of office is an offence subject to the draft ordinance on pardons. In terms of tax evasion, only the simplest forms are not subject to pardons, while the serious ones will be pardoned.