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Romania's top court strikes down changes to criminal code as anger mounts over missing teens case

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Flowers and candles are left by people during an anti-government demonstration in Bucharest, Romania, July 27, 2019.
Flowers and candles are left by people during an anti-government demonstration in Bucharest, Romania, July 27, 2019. -
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After massive street protests and warnings from the European Union, it took a gruesome murder case and a supreme court ruling to finally stop Romania's controversial judicial reform in its tracks.

The country's constitutional court has struck down changes to the criminal code made by the ruling Social Democrats that critics say would have made it harder to fight crime and corruption.

Monday's ruling comes at a sensitive time in Romania, amid public outrage over the slow response of authorities to the abduction and murder of two teenage girls.

On Sunday, the families of 15-year-old Alexandra Macesanu, who went missing last week, and 18-year-old Luiza Melencu, who disappeared in April, heard that they had been murdered.

Chief suspect Gheorghe Dinca, a 65-year-old mechanic, has admitted to killing both girls and burning their bodies, his lawyer told Romanian media.

There's been nationwide anger over the case, especially after Alexandra's family accused authorities of being too slow to respond to the three calls she had made to the 112 emergency hotline during her abduction.

Official statements show it took authorities 19 hours after her last call to locate and enter the suspect's residence. Police then requested an unnecessary search warrant and waited until dawn to enter the house.

Protesters argued that the apparent mishandling of the killings showed that changes to judicial legislation had weakened not only anti-corruption cases but also the ability of the Romanian state to fight crime in general.

"Weakened rule of law"

Amendments to judicial legislation and pending changes to the criminal code "have favoured people convicted for corruption," a professional association of judges said last weekend.

It added they had "weakened rule of law by depriving criminal investigators of the technical and legal instruments essential for their job, endangering the lives and safety of all Romanians".

The amendments to the criminal code included shortening the statute of limitations covering some offences – which would automatically shut down a number of cases – lowering prison terms and decriminalising negligence in the workplace.

Under the changes, if convicted of the teens' murders, Dinca would have been able to have his sentence lowered because of his age, while the police and prosecutors may have been protected from complaints that they did not take the disappearances seriously enough.

The centre-right opposition had challenged the reform in the Constitutional court, saying the measures aimed to protect elected officials suspected of corruption – including the former Social Democrat leader Liviu Dragnea, who was jailed in May for abuse of office.

The ruling coalition initially overhauled the codes last year, prompting warnings from the European Commission that the changes rowed back on a decade of reforms and eroded the rule of law.

The bills will now return to parliament, which will have to modify them in agreement with the Constitutional Court's decision.

"The government is under pressure. There's a lot of public anger that is still around several days after this tragic event and is pressing the government to do something, to roll back their judicial reforms," explains Bucharest-based journalist Alison Mutler.

Romania's police chief and two county officials have already been fired. But on Saturday, thousands of demonstrators marched through the streets of the capital Bucharest, calling for government sackings over the case.

Prime Minister Viorica Dancila has said she was considering calling a referendum to introduce harsher sentences for rapists, paedophiles and murderers.