BUCHAREST (Reuters) - Romanian anti-corruption prosecutors accused the justice minister on Tuesday of interfering in a criminal investigation involving two senior government officials.
They said they had asked the top judicial watchdog to look into comments that Tudorel Toader made about their inquiry, in a country that Transparency International and other bodies say has one of the worst records on graft in the European Union.
There was no immediate comment from Toader, whose Social Democrat-led government triggered the largest street protests in decades in February by trying to decriminalise several corruption offences.
The prosecutors from the DNA anti-corruption agency said on Friday they had opened a criminal investigation into Deputy Prime Minister Sevil Shhaideh for suspected abuse of office in a land transfer case.
The DNA also asked parliament to approve an investigation into European funds minister Rovana Plumb linked to the same case.
Both Shhaideh and Plumb denied wrongdoing.
Prosecutors said in a statement they suspected both of helping in 2013 to illegally transfer 324 hectares (800 acres) of prime land near the Danube river from the state to the county council of Teleorman, which then leased it to private operators.
They said the transfer was done through government bills, which prosecutors said contravened the constitution as well as laws concerning state property and national waters.
Justice minister Toader, when asked about the case on Tuesday, told journalists that judges not prosecutors should be the ones to look into whether bills were used properly.
“The justice minister’s comments over an ongoing criminal investigation are ... a form of interference in prosecutors’ activity,” DNA said in a statement.
It said it had asked the Superior Magistrates Council to look into whether his words “could effect the independence of the judicial system”, as he was in effect questioning the legality of their work.
In August, the European Commission expressed concerns that a planned judicial overhaul which would give the politically appointed justice minister more control over the justice system would undermine Romania’s progress in fighting graft.
The leftist Social Democrats won an election in December, a year after losing power following street protests after a nightclub fire killed 64 people and triggered widespread anger over corruption and impunity.
They came into office promising to raise wages and pensions continue to top opinion polls.
Reporting by Luiza Ilie; Editing by Andrew Heavens