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By Radu-Sorin Marinas

BUCHAREST (Reuters) - Romania's government moved a step closer to partly decriminalising abuse of office on Tuesday, a change that could overturn a prison sentence given to the leader of the ruling party.

Romania's upper house of parliament voted through the change to the criminal code, in the face of complaints and protests from opposition politicians and anti-corruption activists who have accused the government of allowing widespread graft.

Prosecutors have said more than 200 abuse of office cases, currently making their way through the courts could be scrapped if the changes come into effect.

The lower house is due to vote the changes into law later this month, a development that would further strain relations with the European Union, which has kept Romania's judiciary under special monitoring since its 2007 entry into the bloc.

Government lawmakers have said Romania has a much harsher abuse of office law than other countries and the changes are necessary to stop people going to jail for minor offences.

Prosecutors have secured a spate of convictions in recent years against lawmakers, ministers and mayors, exposing conflicts of interest, abuse of power, fraud and awarding of state contracts in exchange for bribes.

The head of the ruling Social Democrat party, Liviu Dragnea, was sentenced to three and a half years in prison by the Supreme Court last month for inciting others to abuse of office, prompting thousands to rally against his government.

SHORTER SENTENCES

Romania's most powerful politician, who is also speaker of the lower house, has repeatedly denied all the charges. The sentence was not imposed, pending his expected appeal.

Under the changes, proposed by the justice ministry, abuse of office would no longer be a crime if prosecutors can not prove the accused committed the deed for his own benefit or for close relatives.

Critics of the changes have said Dragnea, 55, would benefit as he has not been convicted of benefitting himself or any relations.

He was found guilty of keeping two women on the payroll of a state agency in 2006-2013 even though they were employed by his party while he was a county council chief - a charge he denies.

The centrist opposition has said it will challenge the bill at the constitutional court if it goes through.

Critics say the changes would mean that prosecutors would no longer be able to go after an official who abuses his position to give a contract to a political ally.

An official who makes less that 1,900 lei ($474) - the minimum monthly wage - from his actions would also be exempt from criminal prosecution.

Maximum jail sentences for abuse of office would be lowered to five years from seven, and convicts older than 60 would serve only a third of their overall prison sentence under the changes.

(Editing by Andrew Heavens)

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