Romanian expats return home for major anti-government protest, clash with police

Many Romanians who left their homeland because of corruption, low wages and lack of opportunities returned to rally for the government's resignation. Police responded to the protests with a water cannon and tear gas.

Hundreds of Romanian expatriates have driven across Europe to join the compatriots in an anti-government protest that local media said drew between 50,000 and 80,000 people on Friday.

The demonstrators, who gathered outside the government offices in Bucharest's Victoriei Square, called for the country's leaders to resign over corruption allegations and early elections. Police used a water cannon and tear gas to disperse demonstrators, who were calling for the government to resign. Some 250 people required medical attention.

Romanian President Klaus Iohannis, a critic of the government, said he "firmly condemned the brutal intervention of riot police," which he called a disproportionate reaction to mostly peaceful protests.

Romania's ruling Social Democratic Party (PSD) has been targeting the judiciary following a string of high-profile graft investigations by the country's anti-corruption agency (DNA) and convictions of senior PSD officials. The left-wing party tried to decriminalize several corruption offenses through an emergency decree last year, however, following anti-government street protests, the PSD was forced to withdraw the decree. 

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Call for resignation

In February, the Romanian government bowed to protesters' demands, saying it would repeal legislation decriminalizing certain forms of corruption, but demonstrators said the move is not enough. "Now we’re asking for the government to resign," Mihai Oprica, 31, an IT manager pictured above. "[These protests] can stop if they cooperate. If not, we will continue coming out every day."

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"We woke up"

Since the controversial decree was passed, more than 300,000 people have demonstrated nightly in cities across the country, with 150,000 gathering in Bucharest’s Victoria Plaza, shown above. Protesters chanted "We woke up" through the evening and many expected the largest demonstration yet to take place here on Sunday night, when citizens from rural areas will come to Bucharest.

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"No way, no escape"

"No way, no escape," reads a sign in Victoria Plaza. "Even if they cancel the decree, how do we know they won’t try to pass another one next month?" asked Dan, 36, a state employee. "We have no trust in the government and they should understand that there [are] enough honest citizens that will make sure the law is followed."

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Human chain around the parliament

Tens of thousands marched to Romania's parliament building to create a human chain around the complex, which has a perimeter of about three kilometers. One of the protesters on site, Christian Nadu, 32, a corporate project manager, said, "By surrounding the Parliament, we are making a statement that this is our house, not theirs, and we’re taking over."

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Easement on corruption

The one-month old cabinet of Romania’s Social Democrat party (PSD) sparked the revolt by passing legislation that made official misconduct punishable by prison time only when financial damages exceed 200,000 lei (44,000 euros.) The measure would have ended the ongoing trial of PSD party leader Liviu Dragnea, who is convicted of electoral fraud, and was largely seen as a self-pardon.

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"Go home forever"

Sorin Taban, 53, a technical manager from Bucharest, holds a sign reading, '1: Cancel Ordinance. 2: Go home.' He said he would not be satisfied until the PSD cabinet resigns. "The people have so little while politicians have big mansions with swimming pools and billions of euros in foreign banks. This kind of old communist leadership must go home forever!"

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Protest of historic proportions

The ongoing anti-corruption protests are the largest demonstrations in Romania since 1989. "Before this, people didn’t go out to protest because they thought they couldn't change anything," Nadu said. "This is the media's fault. The state channels have always suppressed big movements. Now the Romanian people know they have power and they will not forget this."

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What does victory look like?

Florin Luca, 31, a telecom project manager (not pictured above) said the end goal for protesters should be installing an independent judiciary. "The government was trying to shut the mouth and break the arms of justice and we would lose everything we built over the last ten years. We need a judicial system that stands independent of political parties."

Since their election victory in December 2016, Romanians have regularly protested moves by the PSD and its junior, liberal, partner ALDE to weaken the DNA's fight against corruption

Hundreds of thousands of Romanians have demanded a law that would ban from office people convicted of corruption. 

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2017 rallies in the capital

Demonstrators joined several rallies in the capital Bucharest in February last year to protest against the government for decriminalizing certain corruption offences. The country's left-wing government adopted an emergency law to make abuse of power punishable only when it concerns sums that exceed 200,000 lei (44,000 euros)

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Crowds hit the streets

Protesters set fire to street signs during scuffles with police. The government claims the new laws were necessary to bring the eastern European country's criminal code in line with recent constitutional court rulings.

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Police firing tear gas

Protesters say the proposed changes would be a blow to anti-corruption drives in Romania that have been ongoing for several years. Some demonstrators hurled bottles, firecrackers and stones at security forces, who responded by firing tear gas.

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Nationwide riots

Hundreds of thousands of protesters braved freezing temperatures in cities across the country. President Klaus Iohanis called the adoption of the law "a day of mourning for the rule of law ... which has received a grave blow from the enemies of justice."

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Riot police called out

Four police and two demonstrators sustained minor injuries after protests turned violent in front of the Romanian parliament, police said. Twenty protesters were arrested and a number of Molotov cocktails were seized, according to a police statement.

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Protest in front of the government headquarters

Between 200,000 and 300,000 demonstrators were reported to have turned out. Many shouted "Thieves!" and called on the government to step down in the light of the emergency decree.

Creative protesting

In July, police in Romania seized the number plates from a man who registered a car in Sweden with letters featuring a derogatory phrase aimed at Romania's ruling Social Democratic Party (PSD). Razyan Stefanescu's personalized plates read "MUIEPSD" which translates as F***PSD" — a slogan often used at anti-government protests. Images of his vehicle went viral on social media.

kw/sms (AP, AFP)

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