By Luiza Ilie and Radu-Sorin Marinas
BUCHAREST (Reuters) - Romania's Senate approved changes to the criminal code on Wednesday that could shut down a number of ongoing high-level graft cases in one of the European Union's most corrupt states.
The changes are the latest in a series made by the ruling Social Democrats since they came to power in 2017 that are seen by critics as threats to judicial independence. They could further heighten EU concerns about democratic values in some of its eastern states.
Among the changes to the criminal code is shortening the statute of limitations covering some offences, a move that would automatically shut down a number of ongoing cases. The lower house has the final say on the revised criminal code, and is likely to pass the law in a final vote expected next week.
However, opposition lawmakers and centrist President Klaus Iohannis could challenge the changes at the Constitutional Court, delaying enforcement.
Ruling party leader Liviu Dragnea, who has a suspended jail term in a vote-rigging case and an ongoing appeal against a second conviction for inciting others to commit abuse of office, would be among the politicians to benefit from the changes.
Social Democrat lawmakers initially spearheaded an overhaul of the country's criminal codes last year. The European Commission said the proposed changes were a reversal of a decade of democratic and market reforms in the former Communist country.
The Constitutional Court struck down many of the changes following challenges by opposition lawmakers. Since then, the Social Democrats have been pressuring their own government to approve a smaller revision via emergency decree.
Unlike parliament bills, emergency decrees come into effect immediately and are much harder to challenge at the Constitutional Court.
Previous attempts to decriminalise several graft offences via decree triggered the largest street protests in decades.
The government has delayed approving the decree and a second one that would allow politicians and others convicted of graft since 2014 to retroactively challenge the verdicts handed down by the supreme court.
Twelve Western nations urged Bucharest earlier this month to scrap the decrees.
On Wednesday, Prime Minister Viorica Dancila said she will fire Justice Minister Tudorel Toader unless he resigns first, potentially making way for a replacement who would push the decrees through.
Senior members of the ruling party have criticized Toader in recent weeks for delaying passage of the decrees.
"Minister (Toader) was wrong when he said he would do some things and then didn't finalise them," Dancila told reporters.
Asked about the decrees, Dancila said, "To approve an act in the government, I would have to have it on my table: I did not have it".
Toader said on his Facebook page that there was not enough time to answer all of what he called misinformation.
He has been criticised by those advocating more transparency in Romania after he campaigned successfully to force out former chief anti-corruption prosecutor Laura Codruta Kovesi - a frontrunner to become the EU's first fraud prosecutor.
He also created a special unit to investigate magistrates, seen by critics as a political tool to muzzle prosecutors.
Transparency International ranks Romania, which currently holds the EU's rotating presidency, among the bloc's most corrupt states. Brussels has praised Romanian magistrates for their efforts to curb graft.
The EU stepped up its defence of judicial independence and rule of law across the EU this month, announcing new legal measures against Poland and cautioning Romania not to pardon corrupt politicians.
(Reporting by Luiza Ilie and Radu Marinas; Editing by Frances Kerry)