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Romania’s Ex-PM Ponta In Court On Graft Charges

Victor Ponta, who quit as Romania’s prime minister this week after mass protests, made his first appearance in court on corruption charges.

As thousands of people again took to the streets demanding the overhaul of a political system they see as corrupt, President Klaus Iohannis said the country may hold early elections or seek to form a government of technocrats.

Ponta who resigned on Wednesday after huge street protests sparked by a deadly nightclub fire, appeared at the High Court of Justice for a preliminary hearing on charges of fraud, tax evasion and money laundering.

The charges related to a period between 2007 and 2011 when he was working as a lawyer, before he became premier in 2012.

The 43-year-old former Social Democrat leader, who denies the charges, ignored questions from the large media scrum that greeted him at the court.

Friday’s hearing was focused on procedural matters and dealing with lawyers’ requests, a court spokesman said. No date has been set for the start of the trial, which is expected to open in the coming weeks.

Prosecutors also suspect Ponta of conflict of interest while in government, but that probe was stymied when parliament — where his Social Democrat party holds a comfortable majority — refused to lift his immunity from prosecution.

While he is no longer premier, Ponta remains a member of parliament and continues to enjoy immunity.

– ‘Corruption kills’ –

Despite his legal troubles, Ponta had previously ruled out resigning, but changed his mind when last week’s fire at a Bucharest nightclub — which left 32 dead and nearly 200 injured — saw tens of thousands to demonstrate as a wave of grief and anger swept the country.

Many saw the tragedy at the Colectiv club as a sign that nothing has changed in one of Europe’s poorest and most corruption-prone nations. The venue was not authorised to hold concerts or stage the pyrotechnic display that sparked the fire.

Ponta’s resignation has failed to quell public anger and on Friday some 15,000 people turned out across several major cities in the fourth night of protests.

“Too much corruption, not enough justice,” and “corruption kills” chanted protesters in Bucharest, while others held a silent march in memory of the victims of the club fire.

Several hundred people processed through the city before placing candles outside the Colectiv nightclub.

Criticised for its silence after the tragedy, the Romanian Orthodox Church also said bells would toll across the capital just before midnight in mourning for those who died in the fire.

Under sustained pressure from protesters, the president has told representatives of the country’s parties that Romania may hold early elections or form a government of technocrats.

“Most political leaders are ready to discuss early parliamentary elections or a government of technocrats,” Iohannis told reporters.

On Thursday, the president also met some two dozen members of civil society groups involved in the protests, who said they want “new political figures” to take over, echoing the demonstrators’ calls for a “profound change” of the political system.

Romania’s next parliamentary election had been planned for November 2016. No new date has yet been set.

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