Romania government feels heat after record demos

Bucharest (AFP) - Romanian protesters on Monday demanded their government quit, stepping up pressure after a week of demonstrations unparalleled in ferocity in the three decades since the end of communism.

The seventh straight evening of protest came even after the left-wing government scrapped the measure that started it all: an emergency decree weakening anti-corruption laws.

"We do not want to spend our nights here, but we can no longer trust the government," Marius, a 35-year-old among 10,000 in Bucharest told AFP.

Brandishing banners, waving flags and blowing whistles and horns, half a million people had taken to the streets across the country on Sunday to drive home their mistrust of the government, many of them chanting "Resign! Resign!"

But despite the protests -- the biggest since people power brought down dictator Nicolae Ceausescu and the communist system in 1989 -- the government remained defiant.

Prime Minister Sorin Grindeanu on Monday called for calm and insisted he "understood the protesters' message".

He stressed that his Social Democrat party (PSD), which won a resounding election victory only in December, has "a responsibility to the people who voted for us" and would stay.

- Get out of jail -

PSD head Liviu Dragnea -- already barred from office for a voter fraud conviction and currently on trial for alleged abuse of power, a charge he denies -- said he believed the protests were being instigated by unspecified powerful forces.

"Who is organising this? Hard to say but I hope that the state institutions have this information," Dragnea said in a television interview.

"I reproach myself for not having understood that this is a much better organised plan than a simple spontaneous movement."

The government decree, which would have made abuse of power a crime only punishable by jail if the sums involved exceeded 200,000 lei (44,000 euros, $47,500), was scrapped on Sunday.

One Monopoly-inspired placard on Sunday read: "Do not collect 200,000. Go straight to jail."

EU Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker, speaking in Brussels, welcomed the scrapping of the decree

"The protesters have won the first battle," was the headline on Romania's biggest daily paper Adevarul.

- Anti-corruption drive -

The government still also aims, via a separate decree to be reviewed by parliament, to free some 2,500 people serving prison sentences of less than five years.

Grindeanu, 43, has argued the measures were meant to bring penal law into line with the constitution in the EU member state and reduce overcrowding in prisons.

But critics see the moves as a brazenly transparent attempt to let off the many officials and lawmakers who have been ensnared in a major anti-corruption drive in recent years.

That push, which won Romania kudos abroad, has seen almost 2,000 people convicted for abuse of power and a serving prime minister and a string of ministers and lawmakers go on trial.

Justice Minister Florin Iordache said that a bill taking into account all the grievances about the decree would be published later Monday and be debated with opposition parties and civil society groups.

Writer and former minister Andrei Plesu hailed the renaissance of a "civic culture", seeing "reasons for enthusiasm and hope" in the uncertainty.

Political analyst Cristian Tudor Popescu compared the government to a "thief who tries to be pardoned if he brings back what he has stolen".