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BUCHAREST (Reuters) - Hundreds of Romanians rallied outside government headquarters in Bucharest late on Wednesday to protest against a proposal to widen a draft bill on prison pardons to include corruption offences.
Romania is seen as one of the European Union's most corrupt states and Brussels keeps its justice system under special monitoring. While the European Commission has repeatedly praised the judiciary for progress stamping out graft, it has noted parliament has a track record of trying to weaken legislation.
On Wednesday, the senate's legal committee approved amendments to the bill to include influence peddling and bribe-taking on the list of pardonable offences.
The senate will now vote on the bill before it goes to the lower parliamentary house, which has the final say on whether it becomes law.
Three months ago the cabinet of Social Democrat Prime Minister Sorin Grindeanu approved a decree that would have shielded dozens of public officials from prosecution, drawing international criticism and triggering the largest nationwide protests in decades.
The ruling coalition eventually rescinded the decree and reshuffled the cabinet.
Reuters journalists saw more than 1,000 people gathered on Wednesday in the capital city's Victory square, the epicentre of the earlier protests, waving Romanian and EU flags and chanting "We don't want to be a nation of thieves".
Hundreds more gathered in other cities across the country.
The government has said it does not support the latest amendments, though it was unclear whether the ruling coalition of Social Democrats and junior partner ALDE would back them in parliament.
In its initial form, the prison pardons bill covered all sentences of up to five years except for corruption, violence, treason, genocide and other serious crimes, as well as repeat offenders.
The amendments were mainly drafted by Social Democrat senator Serban Nicolae and opposition senator and former President Traian Basescu.
Basescu told senators on the legal committee that politicians used alleged bribes to buy electoral gifts such as umbrellas and coats for their party supporters.
He said prosecutors were acting as if "Virgin Mary is here, untouched, and ... this has created an atmosphere of submission for the political class."
Social Democrat leader Liviu Dragnea, who received a two-year suspended sentence in a vote-rigging case and is currently on trial in a separate abuse of office case, said late on Wednesday on his Facebook account that he categorically disapproved of the amendments.
Prosecutors' investigations in recent years have showed mayors, county councillors, lawmakers and ministers favoured certain companies for public works deals and demanding a percentage of the contracts as bribes.
Reporting by Luiza Ilie; editing by John Stonestreet