BUCHAREST (Reuters) - Thousands of Romanians protested in Bucharest and the western city of Cluj on Wednesday against government plans to grant prison pardons and decriminalize some offences through emergency decrees that could weaken an anti-corruption drive.
In Bucharest, about 3,000 people carrying signs that say "We see you" and chanting "In a democracy, thieves stay in prison" marched toward the government building.
Earlier on Wednesday, President Klaus Iohannis attended his first government meeting since taking office in 2014. He urged ministers not to amend the criminal code via decree and sought to ease concerns about backsliding on commitments to tackle corruption.
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"There are two elephants in the room and no one is talking about them: the emergency pardoning decree and the decree that changes criminal codes," Iohannis, a center-right leader, said at the start of the cabinet meeting.
"I stress that...the prime minister is committed not to introduce such issues overnight at any government meeting."
The drafts of the decrees, published after the government meeting, showed an intent to pardon convictions of less than 5 years for several crimes. The government also aims to decriminalize abuse of power that has caused budget damage of less than 200,000 lei ($47,522).
The government, which took office after a Dec. 11 parliamentary election, has cited a need to get the criminal code in line with recent constitutional court rulings. It has also said granting pardons would help ease the burden of Romania's overcrowded prisons.
Critics have raised concerns about legislating via decree rather than going through parliament, where the government has a solid majority but would face a challenging debate. Decrees come into effect immediately.
Judges, the prosecutor general and chief anti-corruption prosecutor have all criticized plans to amend criminal legislation without consulting the judiciary.
Abuse of power accounts for a third of anti-corruption investigations. Ruling Social Democrat Party leader and parliament lower house speaker Liviu Dragnea is currently on trial in an abuse of power case. He is also serving a two-year suspended jail sentence in a vote rigging case.
The European Commission keeps Romania's legal system under special monitoring. It has praised magistrates' efforts to fight widespread graft, but noted Romanian politicians have a history of trying to pass legislation to weaken investigative powers.
Prime Minister Sorin Grindeanu told reporters the two decrees were not on the agenda this week, but that they could be once the judiciary is consulted.
"It is just as constitutional as the president attending a government meeting for us to issue emergency decrees in all areas that the law allows us to," he said.
(Reporting by Luiza Ilie; editing by Ralph Boulton)