By Radu-Sorin Marinas
BUCHAREST (Reuters) - A committee of Romanian lawmakers voted on Monday to partially decriminalise abuse of office, a change that if enacted could overturn a prison sentence against the ruling party leader and further strain ties with the European Union.
The vote appears the latest twist in a regional drama that has seen the EU accuse several eastern European post-communist countries of plotting to put their courts under political control and weaken the rule of law, allegations they deny.
Romania is seen as one of the EU's most corrupt states, and Brussels has kept its justice system under special monitoring since its 2007 accession to the bloc. Arguments about how hard to fight graft have dominated its post EU-entry politics.
Monday's vote was taken by a committee headed by Florin Iordache, who quit as justice minister in early 2017 after a failed attempt to decriminalise several graft offences triggered the biggest rallies since the 1989 anti-communist revolution.
The changes filed by the justice ministry cleared the panel by a 13/7 margin in a session dominated by ruling Social Democrat Party (PSD) MPs, who also have a comfortable majority in the legislative.
Last month, the Supreme Court sentenced PSD leader Liviu Dragnea, who is also the speaker of the lower house of parliament, to 3-1/2 years in jail for inciting other public officials to commit abuse of office. The ruling is not final and can be challenged in court.
Critics say Dragnea's preliminary jail sentence for abuse of office could become void as neither he nor his relatives benefited from the alleged offences, although the court ruled that some of his party's employees - also sentenced in the case - did.
Under the amendments, abuse of office would no longer be a crime if prosecutors could not prove the public official in question had committed the deed for his own benefit or for the benefit of first- or second-degree relatives.
Moreover, the committee voted to decriminalise actions as a result of which a public official gains under 1,900 lei (361.6 pounds), a change that appears to redefine abuse of office.
The lawmakers also voted to lower the maximum jail sentence for abuse of office to five years from seven currently, and decided that convicts older than 60 would serve only one third of their overall sentence to prison.
Anti-graft prosecutors have said that over 200 abuse of office offences that are currently making their way through the courts could be immediately scrapped when new changes take effect.
The bill will be sent to the upper house, the senate, for debate on Tuesday. A vote in the lower house, which has the final say on the bill, is expected before July 19, when an extraordinary legislative session which began on July 2 ends.
Anti-corruption prosecutors have secured a spate of convictions against lawmakers, ministers and mayors in recent years, exposing conflicts of interest, abuse of power, fraud and the awarding of state contracts in exchange for bribes.
But leading politicians, some of whom are currently under investigation or on trial, have denied wrongdoing and accused prosecutors of using their powers for political persecution.
(Editing by William Maclean)