Romania leaders under growing pressure amid protests

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Media captionSome protesters in Bucharest threw smoke bombs at police, who responded with tear gas

Romania's new leadership is facing growing pressure after one of the country's largest ever anti-government protests over a decree to free dozens of officials jailed for corruption.

The president said he would challenge the government's decree in court, while the business minister has resigned over the measure.

The justice minister, who introduced the decree, has temporarily stood down.

Some 200,000 people took to the streets around Romania in protest on Wednesday.

The largest protests since the fall of communism in 1989, the march in Bucharest ended in clashes between alleged football hooligans and the police, leaving eight wounded.

The leftist government, led by Prime Minister Sorin Grindeanu of the Social Democratic Party (PSD), only returned to power in December after protests forced the previous leadership from power in October 2015.

What do we know about the decree?

The emergency decree was brought in on Tuesday and comes into effect in 10 days.

It decriminalises several offences and makes abuse of power punishable by incarceration only if the sums involved are more than €44,000 (£38,000; $48,000).

The new government says the decree is needed to ease overcrowding in prisons but Mr Grindeanu's critics say he is trying to release allies convicted of corruption.

One immediate beneficiary would be the PSD leader, Liviu Dragnea, who faces charges of defrauding the state of €24,000.

Others due for release include elected officials and magistrates.

Mr Dragnea, 54, has become a focal figure for the protesters and is already barred from office because of an earlier suspended jail sentence for voter fraud.

Image copyright EPA
Image caption The march in Bucharest turned violent, with eight wounded

The decree was drawn up by Justice Minister Florin Iordache. Romanian media reported on Thursday that he had handed over his duties to his deputy until 7 February.

A spokeswoman told the national Agerpres news agency that it was because he had a heavy workload preparing for this year's budget, though some speculate that he is attempting to distance himself from enforcing the measure.

What has been the response?

Centre-right President Klaus Iohannis announced he was referring the decree to the constitutional court - the second such challenge to be lodged - saying: "In my view, it is without doubt a legal conflict."

Earlier, Business Minister Florin Jianu said said he could not support the measure and was standing down for the sake of his son. "How I am going to look him in the eyes...? Will I tell him that his father was a coward?" he wrote on Facebook.

The PSD's vice-president, Mihai Chirica, has also called on his party to withdraw the decree, Reuters news agency reports.

The protesters massing in Bucharest on Wednesday night chanted "Resign" and "Thieves, thieves".

"Our chances are small but it is important to fight," said architect Gabriela Constantin.

Another protester, Nicolae Stancu, said: "We came to protect our country against criminals who tried to dismiss the rule of law in Romania; to protect our rights and interests, not their obscure interests."

Demonstrators accused local football hooligans loyal to the ruling party of trying to sabotage their protest by targeting police.

Witnesses told the BBC that a group of at least 100 "ultras" threw smoke bombs and stones at police. At least eight people were wounded; two riot police and two protesters were taken to hospital with minor injuries.

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