Protesters and president pile pressure on Romanian government

Police and officials defend actions after 450 people hurt at Bucharest rally

Tens of thousands of protesters rallied against the ruling Social Democrat (PSD) government in cities across Romania and the capital Bucharest, where riot police scuffled with some and fired tear gas. Video: Reuters

 

Romanian prosecutors are investigating the role of police officers and protesters in clashes that injured more than 450 people during an anti-government rally and triggered a new row between the country’s leaders.

About 100,000 people gathered in Bucharest’s Victory Square on Friday night, including many from the Romanian diaspora, to demand the resignation of a government that has softened anti-graft law and ousted a top anti-corruption prosecutor. Smaller protests took place in other cities around the country.

The vast majority of demonstrators were peaceful, but after small groups hurled rocks, bottles and other projectiles at police officers, they responded with tear gas and water cannon to what they called a serious threat to their safety.

President Klaus Iohannis, a strong critic of the ruling Social Democrats (PSD), said that all political violence was unacceptable, but saved his most damning words for what he called the “brutal intervention” of the riot police, calling it “strongly disproportionate” to the threat they faced from the crowd.

“In a real democracy every citizen has the right to protest,” he added.

“Trying to use a violent reaction from law enforcement to break the people’s will is a despicable solution. The interior minister must urgently explain the way she handled events this evening.”

‘Those hooligans’

The minister, Carmen Dan, said she did not give orders personally to the riot police but insisted their “intervention with force was justified by the behaviour of those hooligans” and that “no one can accuse [the police] of breaking the law”.

Since the PSD took power in January 2017, its leader Liviu Dragnea has been at loggerheads with Mr Iohannis over the government’s justice reforms, most notably the decriminalisation of certain corruption offences.

The changes could directly benefit Mr Dragnea, who in June was sentenced to 3½ years in jail in an abuse of office case, in which an appeal is pending. He is already barred from holding a public post due to a vote-rigging conviction, and so he effectively controls the government from behind the scenes.

Last month, the government succeeded in forcing Mr Iohannis to sack the head of Romania’s anti-corruption agency, Laura Codruta Kovesi, who was highly praised internationally for securing the convictions of top politicians and businessmen.

‘Chaos and disorder’

Mr Iohannis said the alleged police violence showed that “this government is irrational and acts against the interests of its own citizens” and he urged PSD members “who do not want to be part of this to get rid of their harmful leadership, which is taking the country towards chaos and disorder”.

In response, Mr Dragnea said Mr Iohannis’ criticism of the police and government showed he supported “an attack on the constitutional order” and made him the “political sponsor of violence and extremist demonstrations”.

Unbowed by Friday’s clashes, some 50,000 people demonstrated again on Saturday in Victory Square, and another protest was planned for Sunday night.

Thousands of Romanians who live abroad joined the protests, complaining that chronic corruption and poverty have forced millions to leave their homeland to find work.