Tens of thousands of people gathered in the Romanian capital of Bucharest on Friday to protest corruption and what critics of the government say is much-weakened rule of law in the European country. Hundreds wound up injured when the police responded with tear gas and water cannons.
Romanian President Klaus Iohannis criticized the heavy-handed police response, calling it a “brutal intervention, strongly disproportionate to the actions of the majority of people.”
“The interior ministry must explain urgently the way it handled tonight’s events,” the centrist leader wrote in a statement posted to Facebook. He also said he requested the attorney general look into the legality of the riot police’s intervention.
In addition to protesters, some police officers were also injured when protesters retaliated, with some reportedly throwing bottles. Reuters reported that at least 400 people sought medical attention and that the protests were organized in large part by Romanian expats working outside of the country. At least 3 million Romanians live and work abroad, but local media reported that a number of them returned home to take part in this weekend’s demonstrations, which also took place in other parts of the country.
And on Saturday, thousands of protesters returned to the streets to call for the government to resign. Reuters reported that they were yelling “Resignation!” in front of government buildings. The AP said that Georgian Enache, a police spokesman, said the police pushback on Friday was “legitimate state violence" because protesters were refusing to leave despite warnings.
The demonstrations stem from some Romanians' long-standing frustrations with the ruling Social Democrats (PSD). Romania is one of the most corrupt countries in the European Union, according to Transparency International. The country’s anti-corruption agency has pursued a number of corruption cases, and in 2016 managed to prosecute 713 officials, according to the AP. Among them were a number of politicians, including a senator and 28 mayors.
But in July, Laura Codruta Kovesi, the leading anti-corruption prosecutor, was fired. Kovesi had support from the president, but the justice minister accused her of overstepping and it was ultimately Iohannis who was forced to fire her after a court ruling. The PSD also reportedly threatened to discuss suspending him if he put the move off any longer.
This summer, the PSD also moved forward with a judicial overhaul that some observers see as a threat to the rule of law in Romania. In June, a dozen countries, including the United States, warned against amending legislation “that would weaken the rule of law or Romania’s ability to fight crime or corruption.” Those changes made it through parliament but are now being challenged in the country’s constitutional court.
In early 2017, Romanian protesters took to the streets in response to a decree that loosened corruption laws. It was believed to be the largest demonstration in decades. Protests against the government and rallies in support of it have continued since then.
After Iohannis criticized the police response to Friday’s demonstration, Prime Minister Viorica Dancila said Iohannis was “inciting the population against the authorities,” AFP reported.
On Twitter, Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz condemned “the violent clashes in Bucharest where numerous demonstrators and journalists were injured.”
“We expect full explanations,” he wrote. At least one injured journalist worked for an Austrian news outlet.