Tensions are high in Romania as thousands of anti-government protesters have taken to the streets for a second consecutive evening, a day after more than 450 people were injured in violence with police.
Demonstators carrying Romanian, European Union and other flags rallied on Saturday outside government offices in the capital, Bucharest, the same place where Friday’s protest took place.
Friday’s rally was attended by many expatriates who returned to Romania to express their anger over what they say is entrenched high-level corruption, low wages, and attempts by the ruling Social Democrat (PSD) party to weaken the judiciary.
Police on Friday used water cannon and tear gas to disperse the protesters, as they called on the left-wing government to resign. Around 30 police officers were also injured, 11 of whom were taken to hospital.
“Have no fear! Romanians will rise up!” the demonstrators yelled on Saturday, as police placed traffic restrictions in the area.
Kit Gillet, a journalist based in Bucharest, said Saturday’s protest, which attracted about 50,000 people, according to his estimates, was “much calmer”.
“There was a sense that they [protesters] were purposely trying to keep things less tense,” he told Al Jazeera. “There were people sitting down in the crowds trying to show a less confrontational approach.”
“For periods of time, the whole crowd turned their back on the government building as a show of both defiance against the government, who they are asking to resign, but also, it’s a non-confrontational way of protesting,” Gillet added.
Isabela Conduruta, a 45-year-old Romanian who has worked as a cleaner for 12 years in Germany, explained why she joined Saturday’s protest.
“We want to return to Romania, but there’s too much corruption and the health care is dismal,” she told The Associated Press news agency.
Police defends use of force
Romanian police on Saturday defended their use of force the previous night, rejecting criticism from the centre-right opposition.
Marius Militaru, spokesman for Romania’s riot police, said police were pursuing charges against eight people.
There were no immediate reports of life-threatening injuries, but Militaru said a female colleague had been “brutally beaten” and has a suspected fractured spine.
Militaru said officers were ordered by Bucharest city officials to evacuate Victory Square late on Friday.
Another police spokesman, Georgian Enache, said “the legitimate state violence” was justified because protesters had been warned several times to leave the square.
Police used water cannon and tear gas to disperse the protesters [Octav Ganea/Reuters]
Protesters lobbed rocks, bottles and smoke bombs at riot police. Some people sustained head and other injuries while others were overcome by tear gas, authorities said.
Interior Minister Carmen Dan said the riot police had not “intervened against peaceful protesters, but against dangerous hooligans who attacked the state’s authority”.
But President Klaus Iohannis, a critic of the left-wing government, condemned “the brutal intervention of riot police” on Friday night.
Three journalists said they were also subjected to police violence.
Austrian public broadcaster ORF said on Saturday that a cameraman covering the protest was hit by police with truncheons and the TV presenter with him was shoved up against a wall.
A journalist filming the rally for Romania’s Hotnews online website said he was kicked and shoved by riot police.
In a controversial move last month, Romania sacked top anti-graft prosecutor Laura Codruta Kovesi – considered a symbol of the country’s fight against corruption.
Romania ranks as one of the European Union’s most corrupt states and Brussels keeps its justice system under special monitoring.
Anti-government protests have been taking place in Romania – on and off – since February 2017, when the government passed a controversial emergency legislation that effectively decriminalised low-level corruption.The government repealed the decree, but mass demonstrations continued to rock the European nation.
“For the last 18 months, we’ve seen continual efforts by the government to change legislation in ways that many people fear will weaken the rule of law,” said Gillet, the journalist.
“The protest movement, in general, will continue because the government is continuing to push through these measures that anger so many people and the protesters will continue to take to the streets.”