Reports suggest man died following tear gas inhalation at anti-corruption protest

Peaceful Assembly and Expression

Anti-corruption protests met with force by police

On 10th August 2018, tens of thousands of anti-corruption protestors, a significant proportion of them belonging to the diaspora who travelled back to Romania just for this occasion, gathered on the streets of Bucharest chanting “resign” and “thieves” in front of the main government building on Victory Square. A group of them tried to break through the police cordon and get into the building. The police used water cannon, tear gas and pepper spray against the protesters.

Footage from Romanian and international television channels showed how, as they attempted to clear the square, security forces seemed to indiscriminately beat protestors and they attacked elderly people with pepper spray. Foreign journalists, including one from the Austrian state broadcaster ORF, were also attacked. "Press passes and raised hands obviously did not help,” reported one Austrian TV journalist.

It is believed that the police may have been ordered to prevent the press from properly reporting the incident. According to local civil society group ActiveWatch,

“the large number of journalists that have been attacked by the Gendarmerie raises suspicions that the institution might have explicitly tried to prevent the citizens from being informed on the way it has acted towards the protesters”.

ActiveWatch, in cooperation with APADOR CH, a local human rights organisation which frequently reports to the CIVICUS Monitor, issued a press release the day after the protest. Among other things, the press release calls on the Romanian police to publish the orders that they received during the protests.

It is estimated that between four-hundred and four-hundred-and-fifty people, including police officers, needed medical attention after the clashes. On August 20th, the website Romanian Insider reported that a man had died in hospital, allegedly from complications associated with inhaling tear gas fired by police on the night of the protest. The report also says that two-hundred and fifty people have "filed criminal complaints against the authorities after being beaten or gassed".

Mass protests in Romania have been relatively frequent over the past two years, and particularly since the government began efforts to decriminalise certain forms of corruption. These moves have been interpreted as attempts to protect corrupt politicians from investigation and prosecution through reforms that would weaken anti-corruption laws and the judiciary.

Romanian police rejected criticism that its officers used excessive force against the protesters, insisting that their actions were intended to remove violent protestors and that peaceful protestors had gotten too close to violent protestors and were therefore caught up in the measures taken by police.

The incident also sparked a high-level public dispute between Romania's top public officials. Romania's president Klaus Iohannis condemned the police intervention, which he deemed disproportionate to the attitude of most demonstrators. Viorica Dancila, the prime minister, in turn accused the president of “inciting the population against the authorities”. She also sent a letter to European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and First Vice-President Frans Timmermans complaining about Iohannis’s behavior. Liviu Dragnea, the head of the ruling party, PSD and one of the most influential Romanian politicians shared PM Dancila’s standpoint and labeled the protest a "failed coup".