Magistrates protest as they stand in front of the Court of Appeal, on February 22, 2019, in Bucharest, Romania. Andrei PUNGOVSCHI / AFP

BUCHAREST (Reuters) – Magistrates protested outside courthouses across Romania on Friday and many prosecutors will stop work next week, in an unprecedented protest against changes in judicial legislation that have raised alarm bells over the rule of law.

Romania’s government used an emergency decree to alter the legislation on Tuesday, mostly stripping prosecutors of more of their powers. It was the latest in a series of changes the ruling Social Democrats have made in the past two years that have triggered massive street protests.

The European Commission, U.S. State Department and thousands of Romanian magistrates have said the changes threaten the independence of the judiciary and the rule of law.

“Sudden changes made to judicial laws through an emergency decree, without consulting the Superior Magistrates Council and the body of magistrates, have a major impact on the ability of the overall prosecuting body to fulfil its constitutional duties,” Bucharest prosecutors said in a statement.

The February decree, put forward by Justice Minister Tudorel Toader, changes the appointment process of chief prosecutors and removes most oversight of a prosecuting unit that investigates magistrates, something critics say was created to intimidate.

Judges and prosecutors were gathering outside courthouses across the country on Friday in silent protest, holding banners that read “Independence,” “Rule of law,” “An independent judiciary has independent prosecutors” and “Mister minister, enough.”

Prosecutors in cities from capital Bucharest to the small eastern Romanian city of Suceava will not work cases except emergencies from Monday for three to seven days. Many judges will also follow suit.

Prosecutors’ and judges’ associations were meeting to decide on further forms of protest.

Romania is regularly ranked one of the European Union’s most corrupt states, and Brussels has kept its justice system under special monitoring since it joined the bloc in 2007.

The country’s anti-corruption prosecuting agency, DNA, has convicted thousands of public officials, including ministers and lawmakers, across party lines for high-level graft.

Their efforts have won praise from Brussels, diplomats and foreign investors, but disdain from most local politicians.

The Social Democrats say the changes are intended to curb abuses committed by magistrates. The party has so far ignored European Commission recommendations to reconsider the changes.

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