BUCHAREST, Romania — At least a thousand people took to the streets of Bucharest on Sunday night to protest a series of amendments to the criminal code passed in secret earlier last week, which reduces criminal consequences for politicians and eliminates public investigation of their crimes.
Government watchdogs believe the changes to the code "shield elected officials from corruption prosecution" by giving officials the option of instead replacing lost funds and paying a criminal fine.
"In other words," said activist group Transparency International Romania, "the grand corrupt will be able to buy their freedom."
The amendments also recriminalize "defamation" — which had been decriminalized in 2006 — which the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) said could "stifle debate and be used to protect public officials from criticism. Fear of criminal charges might lead to self-censorship and can ultimately have a chilling effect on investigative journalism."
The United States, United Kingdom, Netherlands, Germany and European Commission have all criticized the recent amendments to the criminal code, according to a Romanian national news agency and an official press release from the US government.
What started as static protests in Bucharest’s University Square, quickly turned more aggressive as protesters marched to Palatul Victoria, the seat of the Romanian government. Hundreds of riot police, sometimes three deep, armed with batons and gas, formed barricades as protesters attempted to reach the government building.
Police officers broke protesters into groups and blockaded their march to the government building. After breaking through the lines of riot police, demonstrators moved against traffic through standstill cars, many which honked in solidarity, and continued almost 2 kilometers to the government headquarters.
Protests in Romania have grown in frequency, happening every Sunday night for the past several months since September 1, when more than 20,000 people came out against the Rosia Montana project. Many Romanians said these kinds of protests are out of character for this country, even considering the 1989 fall of the communist regime.
But these rallies seem different, demonstrators said.
"We are young and old we are leftish and rightish, there are monarchists, there are atheists, there are Orthodox people, there are people working for corporations, there are all kinds of people," said Claudia Apostol, an activist who spent almost a decade fighting the Rosia Montana gold mining project. "This touched all of them. It went beyond ideology and immediate interest."
Apostol said she never missed a Sunday protest and brought her daughter with her often because everyone brought kids and families to the assemblies.
Organizers have taken to Facebook to track the numbers planning to attend the demonstrations, but while over 4,000 people confirmed their attendance for this weekend, far fewer actually showed.
"We have a problem now using Facebook as an organizing method because people easily click but the they don't show up," said Alexandru Alexe, a self-professed civil rights activist. "They fool themselves into thinking this is some sort of online solidarity."
Some campaigners have described Romania’s activist culture as “lazy,” saying this, paired with below-freezing temperatures and a heavy fog, is the reason for lower-than-expected turnouts.
Still, a few dozen activists gathered Saturday to paint banners for the Sunday protest in the basement of a crumbling World War I-era mansion, Carol 53, which now serves as a cultural gathering space.
Alin State, an actor in Bucharest, said he wanted to make a sign with the Banksy image of a man throwing a bouquet of flowers inspired by the Romanian revolution.
State said he dedicates his time to helping the protests as best as he can.
"I don't want to be an activist, but I want kids, and I don't want them to grow up in a world like this so I will keep coming as long as they need me," he said.