Romania's corruption crusader says danger not over

Bucharest (AFP) - Romania's government may still try to ease up on punishing graft even after the biggest protests since communism forced it to back down over a controversial decree, Bucharest's chief corruption crusader has warned.

"I don't think the danger is over," Laura Codruta Kovesi, head prosecutor at the National Anti-Corruption Directorate (DNA), told AFP in an interview on Thursday.

"The risk (of other legislative changes) exists and will continue to exist... There is no guarantee that such modifications will not be made in the future," the former professional basketball player said.

Since its creation in 2002 the DNA has been given serious teeth to tackle corruption, long the scourge of the EU's second-poorest member state, which joined the bloc a decade ago.

Between 2014 and 2016 the DNA launched legal proceedings against more than 1,150 people who between them had allegedly misappropriated more than a billion euros ($1.06 billion).

The government's emergency decree, passed late at night last Tuesday, would have raised the bar for such cases, making them punishable only if the sums involved exceeded 200,000 lei (44,000 euros, $47,500).

Kovesi said this would have meant abandoning some 2,100 cases currently under DNA investigation.

"The National Anti-Corruption Directorate right now is going through the most difficult period since its creation," the 43-year-old said, a basketball sitting among the files and books on the shelves behind her.

"These legislative changes would have seriously affected our abilities and the fight against corruption."

The leftwing government of the Social Democrats (PSD), which won a thumping election victory only in December, stressed the need to align the penal code with the constitution and to reduce prison overcrowding.

But many Romanians were not convinced, taking to the streets in their hundreds of thousands over the past 10 days in the biggest demonstrations since the ouster of communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu in 1989.

On Sunday Prime Minister Sorin Grindeanu's government scrapped the decree. But the protests have raged on, albeit with much smaller numbers, with many calling on the government to quit.

- Changing mentalities -

For Kovesi, the decree would have benefitted local officials, lawmakers and ministers, who have been the main group to fall foul of the DNA's efforts in recent years.

As a result the decree would have meant "undermining the principle that no one is above the law", leading to a "loss of Romanians' confidence in justice," the prosecutor said.

She said much of the DNA's success -- nine out of 10 cases end in conviction -- has been down to ordinary people being emboldened to report dodgy goings-on wherever they experience them.

"More and more civil servants are reporting instances of corruption or are reporting their bosses," Kovesi said. "It's a sign of confidence and a sign that people want change... It's a change in mentality."

But Kovesi rejects accusations, particularly from the ruling PSD which feels its members have been disproportionately targeted, that the DNA has in its zeal failed to follow the correct procedures.

"Our activity is subject to a double control. Firstly anyone who feels they have been wronged can appeal... And all the cases are verified by judges before and during the trials," she said.

And many demonstrators have made clear over the past week whom they trust. "Codruta don't forget we support you," read one placard. "May the DNA come and get you!" said another, in a message to the government.