BUCHAREST (Reuters) - Romania’s lower house of parliament voted to partially decriminalise abuse of office on Wednesday, a change that could quash a preliminary prison sentence for the country’s most powerful politician and shield many other graft cases from prosecution.
The measure has sped almost all the way through the legislative process in the face of protests from opposition politicians and anti-corruption activists who have accused the government of allowing widespread graft.
But the bill appears unlikely to complete its passage onto the statute book because President Klaus Iohannis, who would have to sign it into law, has said he will instead challenge the legislation at the constitutional court.
The changes proposed by the justice ministry have cleared debates in a parliamentary committee, the senate and the lower house in only three days, instead of a normal parliamentary procedure which usually lasts several weeks.
Any such change to the criminal code would further strain ties with the European Union, which has kept Romania’s judiciary under special monitoring since its 2007 entry into the bloc.
Prosecutors have said hundreds of abuse of office cases, currently making their way through the courts could be scrapped if the changes, approved in the lower house in a 167/97 vote, come into effect to severely weaken their ability to prosecute big fish officials.
But Iohannis, and the centrist opposition, say they will work to stop the measures taking effect.
“What is going on this days is the dictatorship of majority,” Iohannis told reporters, adding he would challenge the changes in the coming days. “The ruling PSD party has quickly managed to destroy the dignity of the legislative act.”
A European Commission spokesman said in a statement: “We take note that the criminal code reform has been passed ... We will examine the final texts of the legislation for its compatibility with relevant EU law in the field of criminal justice and police cooperation and international standards.”
“As the guardian of treaties we will not hesitate to take action where necessary to ensure such compatibility.”
Social Democrat lawmakers have said Romania has a much harsher criminal law than other EU states and the changes are a normal step to prevent people going to jail for minor offences.
Prosecutors have secured a spate of convictions in recent years against lawmakers, ministers and mayors, exposing conflicts of interest, abuse of power, fraud and awarding of state contracts in exchange for bribes.
The head of the ruling Social Democrat party, Liviu Dragnea, was sentenced to three and a half years in prison by the Supreme Court last month for inciting others to abuse of office, prompting thousands to rally against his government.
Romania’s most powerful politician, who is also speaker of the lower house, Dragnea has repeatedly denied all the charges. The sentence was not imposed, pending his expected appeal.
Under the changes, abuse of office would no longer be a crime if prosecutors cannot prove the accused committed the deed for his own benefit or for close relatives. Dragnea would benefit as he has not been convicted of enriching himself or any close relatives.
The 55-year-old politician was found guilty by the Supreme Court of keeping two women on the payroll of a state agency in 2006-2013 even though they were employed by his party while he was a county council chief.
An official who makes less than 1,900 lei ($474) - the minimum monthly wage - from his actions would also be exempt from criminal prosecution according to the bill.
Maximum jail sentences for abuse of office would be lowered to five years from seven, and convicts older than 60 would serve only a third of their overall prison sentence under the changes.
Editing by William Maclean