BUCHAREST (Reuters) - Romania's Constitutional Court ruled on Wednesday that abuse of public office should remain a criminal offence, rejecting a challenge by several indicted officials and easing concerns over the fate of a crackdown on high-level graft.
However it also narrowed the definition of such offences, saying they should apply to cases where public servants actually broke the law rather than where they caused harm by not doing their jobs properly.
Transparency International ranks Romania as one of the European Union's most corrupt states, and the European Commission keeps its justice system under special monitoring.
But the country's anti-corruption prosecuting unit DNA has won praise from Brussels for its efforts to curb graft, as it has investigated lawmakers, ministers, mayors, magistrates and businessmen in recent years.
All nine constitutional court judges endorsed Wednesday's ruling, which came in response to a case launched by several indicted officials who wanted abuse of power to be decriminalised.
At risk were a third of the cases sent to trial by DNA in 2015, as well as the 860 cases of public procurement fraud - generally committed through abuse of office - DNA has investigated so far this year.
A decision to decriminalise the offence would have led to automatic acquittals, as well as making it impossible for authorities to recover hundreds of millions of euros of damages.
Romania's criminal code defined abuse of power as public servants not doing their job or doing it inappropriately so as to cause damage. On Wednesday, the court decided to replace the phrase "doing their job inappropriately" with "by breaking the law".
It is expected to publish a detailed explanation of its ruling in coming days. It was unclear exactly how high-level graft cases would be affected by the ruling, but one expert said the new definition was not likely to hamper DNA operations.
"I do not think DNA cases refer to minor rule infringements," anti-corruption campaigner Laura Stefan told local television station Digi 24.
"I believe its cases refer to serious law breaking and ... if I am correct, DNA cases will not be affected by this ruling."
DNA investigations have revealed conflict of interest, abuse of power, fraud and the award of state contracts in exchange for bribes. The agency sent 1,250 people to trial on graft charges last year, its highest number yet. It has a 92 percent conviction rate.
(Reporting by Luiza Ilie; Editing by Dominic Evans)