10,000 protest Romania government plans to pardon prisoners

BUCHAREST, Romania (AP) — Thousands of people marched through the Romanian capital and other cities Sunday to protest a government proposal to pardon thousands of prisoners which critics say could reverse the anti-corruption fight.

More than 10,000 protesters massed in University Square, and later broke through police lines, before heading toward government headquarters. Thousands also protested in the cities of Cluj, Timisoara in western Romania, in Sibiu and Iasi, a city in the north. The protest in Bucharest ended after nearly four hours.

In the capital, protesters yelled: "We want democracy, with thieves in prison." They cheered after President Klaus Iohannis, a government critic who supports the anti-corruption drive, turned up at the protest.

"A gang of politicians who have problems with the law want to change the legislation and weaken the state of law," Iohannis said. "Romanians are rightly indignant."

Liviu Dragnea, chairman of the governing Social Democratic Party, later accused Iohannis of "inciting social disorder and violence," suggesting his actions amounted to the start of "a coup d'etat."

Some protesters were elderly, while others carried children on their shoulders or held them in their arms. Demonstrators called the ruling Social Democratic Party "the red plague," and marched several kilometers (miles) north to the party headquarters where they booed party leaders.

Premier Sorin Grindeanu wants to pass an emergency ordinance to pardon prisoners which his government says would ease overcrowding in prisons. Critics say however it would help government allies convicted of corruption. They also say the proposal should be debated in Parliament.

He hasn't reacted to the protests, which first erupted Wednesday.

Donald Simionoiu, an art director, said that he believes that the proposal "hides other things," noting that it would benefit Dragnea, who has a two-year suspended prison sentence for voter rigging, and media mogul Dan Voiculescu, who is serving a 10-year sentence for money-laundering.

The justice ministry published a draft of the plan Wednesday, which was criticized by Romania's top prosecutor, magistrates and opposition politicians. The proposal could primarily affect primarily those with sentences under five years, except for those convicted of crimes of a sexual nature, violence or corruption.

Prisoners over 60, pregnant women and inmates with young children would see their sentences halved regardless of their convictions.

Prison authorities say 3,700 prisoners could be freed. The government said around 2,500 would be freed.