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Romanian President Klaus Iohannis waves to protesters gathered at a demonstration against government plans to grant prison pardons and decriminalize some offences through emergency decree, in Bucharest, Romania, January 22, 2017. Inquam Photos/Liviu Florin Albei via REUTERS


By Radu-Sorin Marinas

BUCHAREST (Reuters) - Romanian President Klaus Iohannis said on Monday he could hold a referendum on the government's plans to decriminalise certain offences and to pardon convicts through decrees, moves critics say could harm efforts to stamp out high-level corruption.

Thousands of people have rallied in Bucharest and cities in recent days to protest against the plans, which have been criticised by Iohannis, the prosecutor general, the supreme court, the chief anti-corruption prosecutor as well as civil rights groups.

"Unfortunately, this topic has become a national topic," Iohannis said an event at the Cotroceni Palace museum.

"There's clearly a wide interest to amending the criminal code...If that's the case I will subject this topic to the public debate and the popular vote."

Iohannis did not offer a time frame for the referendum and the leftist government has not commented. He must first get a non-binding opinion from parliament on his plan.

"I will launch the needed proceedings to allow Romanians to say whether they agree with these moves or not because when they voted (last December), these plans were not included in the (ruling) Social Democrat Party's governing programme."

On Sunday, leftist leader Liviu Dragnea -- himself given a two-year suspended jail sentence for a 2012 referendum-rigging conviction -- branded the street protests as an attempted coup.

Iohannis joined protesters briefly on Sunday.

According to the drafts, the government intends to decriminalise abuse of power actions causing financial damage of less than 200,000 lei (£38,074).

It is also seeking to pardon convicts sentenced to less than five years for committing certain crimes, and cut sentences by half for all prisoners aged over 60, and those having a terminal illness, regardless of their crime.

Iohannis urged the government on Friday to scrap the decrees, which he said would undermine the rule of law and anti-corruption efforts.

The European Union Commission has praised prosecutors' efforts to fight graft while saying that local politicians have a history of trying to pass legislation which could weaken investigative powers.

(Editing by Angus MacSwan)

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