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Outgoing Romanian Justice Minister Asked To Return

BUCHAREST (Reuters) - Romania's new center-left governing coalition has asked outgoing Justice Minister Catalin Predoiu to stay in his post, adding to concerns that it may fail to vigorously revive anti-corruption efforts.

Endemic graft in the new European Union member is a key worry in Brussels since judiciary reforms stalled under the outgoing Prime Minister Calin Tariceanu after EU entry in 2007.

Political observers hoped November's election would boost efforts to combat abuse, particularly among senior officials. But Predoiu's nomination, following intense talks late on December 19 ahead of the December 22 parliamentary vote of confidence in the new cabinet, underlines divisions between the centrist and leftist former arch-rivals on how to tackle graft, they said.

Predoiu, 40, took up his job in February after his predecessor left amid corruption allegations. He drew criticism from civil rights groups for his decision not to extend the appointment of chief anti-corruption prosecutor Daniel Morar.

"Predoiu was a bit disappointing," Laura Stefan of the Romanian Academic Society think tank said. "He should have reappointed Morar and he should have held serious consultations on the criminal codes."

If his cabinet is approved on December 22, as widely expected, Predoiu will face the challenge of pushing through parliament a replacement for Romania's criminal code whose current version dates back to the 1960s, a time of brutal communist repression. He has struggled to get the legislation approved as many parliamentarians tried to blunt anti-graft measures.

Predoiu also faces the daunting task of ensuring the independence of the judiciary in Romania, which was introduced in the run-up to EU accession but faced threats as many politicians fought to protect corrupt practices. "He should defend prosecutors and the justice system publicly. When you have non-stop talk shows on television with politicians yelling at prosecutors, I would like to see Predoiu come out against that," Stefan said.

The minister said he was confident he would meet Brussels' demands and avoid sanctions, imposed on Romania's southern neighbor Bulgaria for abuse in using EU funds this year. The European Commission will continue monitoring progress in 2009. "My main goal as justice minister will be to make sure that Brussels' monitoring on Romania is lifted," he said during parliamentary hearings on his appointment on December 20.

But political observers say he may face opposition from within the coalition, particularly from politicians of the Social Democrat Party (PSD), once tainted by sleaze scandals.