By Luiza Ilie
BUCHAREST (Reuters) - Twelve Western nations warned Romanian lawmakers on Thursday against making changes to criminal legislation they say would weaken the rule of law and Bucharest's ability to fight crime and entrenched corruption.
The ruling Social Democrats (PSD) will start to make changes to the criminal code in a parliamentary committee on Thursday. These include decriminalising several corruption offences such as abuse of office, a crime that earned PSD leader Liviu Dragnea a prison sentence that he plans to appeal against.
The embassies of Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Luxemburg, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland and the United States put out a joint statement saying they were following the changes closely.
"We, Romania's international partners and allies, call on all parties involved in amending Romania's criminal and criminal procedure codes to avoid changes that would weaken the rule of law or Romania's ability to fight crime or corruption," it said.
"We... remain concerned that several changes are likely to impede international law enforcement cooperation and negatively impact the fight against violent crime, transnational organised crime, financial crimes, and drug and human trafficking."
The PSD has already pushed through parliament a judicial overhaul that places magistrates under political control, as well as changes to criminal procedures that would close thousands of cases, from assault or reckless driving to graft, as well as endanger trans-border investigations.
The judicial overhaul and changes to criminal procedures are both facing legal challenges at the Constitutional Court.
Romania's tussle with its NATO and European Union partners comes after Hungary and Poland also clashed with Brussels over their judicial reforms. The three nations' reform efforts have broadened a rift between the EU's eastern and western wings.
Romania is seen as one of the EU's most corrupt states and Brussels, which keeps its justice system under special monitoring, has praised magistrates for tackling corruption.
The Social Democrats' intervention in the justice system since they took power at the start of last year has prompted the biggest protests since communism fell in 1989 and has further exposed the fragility of democracy in eastern Europe.
Earlier this month, the Supreme Court sentenced PSD leader Dragnea, who is also speaker of the lower house of parliament, to 3.6 years in jail for inciting other public officials to commit abuse of office. The ruling is not final and can be appealed.
Dragnea has a previous conviction in a vote-rigging case and is under investigation in a separate case on suspicion of forming a criminal group to siphon off cash from state projects, some of them EU-funded. He denies all wrongdoing.
Anti-corruption prosecutors have secured convictions for a slew of lawmakers, mayors and ministers across parties.
(Reporting by Luiza Ilie; Editing by Gareth Jones)