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Published: Monday December 16, 2013 MYT 3:15:02 AM
Updated: Monday December 16, 2013 MYT 3:15:45 AM

Romanians rally against bill shielding MPs from corruption probes

BUCHAREST (Reuters) - Hundreds of Romanians marched in Bucharest on Sunday to protest against parliament approving a bill that increases the immunity of deputies from corruption charges.

Under the bill, members of parliament would no longer be subject to investigation under corruption allegations linked to public office - such as abuse of power or conflict of interest - due to a change in their status.

The changes, which were passed in record time and with little debate, raised sharp criticism from the country's president, opposition politicians, pro-democracy groups and Western diplomats for undermining the rule of law.

Parliament has also scheduled a vote this week on an amnesty bill that would keep some politicians sentenced to prison for corruption out of jail, but the bill may be withdrawn following public criticism.

Up to 600 people gathered in downtown Bucharest to protest against the proposals, chanting "United we will save all of Romania" and carrying banners that read "Criminal parliament running from the court".

They broke through cordons of riot police and walked towards government headquarters, blocking traffic and protesting in front of the building, as well as heading towards the offices of one of the ruling parties.

The opposition has said it will challenge the bill at the constitutional court. President Traian Basescu has said he will not sign it into law but send it back to the assembly.

Prime Minister Victor Ponta told reporters last week that parliament needed to discuss both bills with the Justice Ministry, prosecutors and magistrates before they are approved, and that the European Commission should also be consulted.

The EU, which Romania joined in 2007, has the country's justice system under special monitoring.

Thousands have regularly protested in cities across Romania since September against government support for a project to build Europe's biggest opencast gold mine in a small Carpathian town and a plan to explore for shale gas in eastern Romania.

(Reporting by Luiza Ilie; Editing by Alison Williams)

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