BUCHAREST -- Massive street protests and stern warnings from the European Union and U.S. State Department were not enough to stop a controversial overhaul of the Romanian legal system that would have weakened the fight against corruption.
But outrage over the kidnapping and grisly killing of a teenage girl led to a Romanian high court verdict that finally proved enough to halt the government's drive to pass the legal changes.
The Constitutional Court had delayed issuing a ruling a record seven times on the controversial reforms that critics -- including Brussels and Washington -- said undermined the rule of law in Romania and rolled back democratic reforms of previous years.
In the end the court's hand was forced by public outrage after the abduction and killing of a second teenager in the southern town of Caracal, where a weak police response and mishandling of the case exposed the potential effects of the ruling Social Democrats' so-called reforms.
The court ruled on July 29 -- after two days of massive protests over the handling of a 15-year-old schoolgirl’s disappearance and eventual killing -- that the changes were unconstitutional, sending them back to parliament for debate based on the court's recommendations.
Protests Across Romania
The verdict by the court puts pressure on the ruling alliance and could lead to it accepting input from civil society and magistrates who have been extremely critical of the proposed changes they say make it harder to do their jobs.
Thousands of people protested in Caracal, Bucharest, and other cities on July 27-28, outraged that it took the authorities 19 hours to locate and enter the premises where kidnapped Alexandra Macesanu made three desperate calls to the country's emergency number on July 25 begging to be rescued as they waited for a search warrant -- even though it isn’t legally required for life-threatening emergencies.
Macesanu's uncle even released a transcript of one of the phone calls in which the responder tells the schoolgirl to get off the line because she is blocking it for other emergency calls.
At the end of the call Macesanu yells, "He's here, he's here!" as the line falls silent. In a later call to the emergency line she said she had been beaten and raped.
Officials confirmed on August 3 that DNA from the remains of a body found behind the building in which Macesanu had allegedly been kept matched hers.
Claudiu Sandu, a top prosecutor from the city of Brasov, told G4Media that police may have been intimidated by the legal changes that the Social Democrat-led government had proposed after they came to power in 2017.
"I believe that if we hadn’t had these [proposed] legislative changes, which weakened the way prosecutors act, criminals hadn’t felt free to roam and [the authorities] would have acted differently," he said.
At the protests and vigils for the young girl, people held up placards saying "I am Alexandra" and "Hello 112, I am Romania. Save me."
WATCH: Protesters March In Bucharest Over Slow Response By Police To Teen's Kidnapping, Murder
At the same time, the mother and grandmother of 18-year-old Luiza Melencu -- the other girl who the suspect in the case, Gheorghe Dinca, has reportedly claimed to have abducted and killed in April -- also expressed anguish at the way they had been treated.
Relatives said they were told Melencu was 18 and therefore an adult and it was suggested she had "gone off with her Prince Charming." They said they were also dismissed in calls to police seeking new information in the search for Luiza.
Political analyst Cristian Parvulescu said the authorities' response to the disappearances was "an expression of the incapacity of the state and the failure of the so-called judicial reforms, which affected the way justice and public order institutions function."
Parvulescu, the dean of the National School of Political Studies and Public Administration, told RFE/RL that violence against women was inadmissibly tolerated in Romania. "This is a patriarchal society."
Questions about Romania's patchy public transportation network across the country was also raised, as there are reports that both girls had hitched a ride with Dinca before being abducted.
Prime Minister Viorica Dancila, under pressure to act, immediately called for a referendum about tougher sentences for murderers, rapists, and pedophiles.
Her call has been widely mocked, including by President Klaus Iohannis, since the prime minister has no authority to call a referendum.
As the story of the girls' disappearances dominated the headlines, new Interior Minister Nicolae Moga fired the chief police officer, Ioan Buda, on July 26 (Buda was named as head of the border police five days later) and dismissed local police chiefs before the minister himself stepped down on July 30, apparently at Dancila's request after only six days on the job.
The head of the country's Special Telecommunications Service (STS) also resigned over the case. The STS is responsible for operating software and communications during elections, and Romania's presidential election is scheduled for later this year.
The fallout from the case continued on August 2, when Dancila fired Education Minister Ecaterina Andronescu for making insensitive remarks, saying that she had been brought up not to get in a car with a stranger.
Dancila has proposed party colleague Mihai Fifor, a former defense minister, to the post of interior minister.
"There will be no mercy, no exceptions, no compromises, and no delays: I declare a war against crime," Dancila said on July 31. "People's anger these days is justified. But Romanians should not be afraid. Our country does not belong to criminals, rapists, pedophiles, and human traffickers."
But Iohannis remarked, "The government should ask if it was not the moral author of this tragedy."
The president called a meeting of the Supreme Defense Council, the country's top security body, on July 30 to discuss the issue with the prime minister, intelligence chiefs, and other security officials.
"The modification of judicial laws, a wave of retirements in [departments] of public order and national security, and early parole have resulted in grave consequences for people's safety," he said after the meeting. "One of the main causes of 'de-professionalization' is appointing people based on political criteria, not [for reasons of] competence."
Some of the changes proposed by the Social Democrats included shortening prison sentences for people over 65, precisely the age of Dinca, who along with his alleged confession has reported being beaten. It is also close to the age of some would-be suspects in corruption cases.
Early parole favors criminals and makes it more difficult for law enforcement, critics of the changes say.
The Initiative for Justice, a prosecutors' professional association, said the changes meant that surveillance cameras wouldn't necessarily be admitted as evidence in court, while negligence in the workplace has been decriminalized, meaning officials would not face legal action over the mishandling of cases.
Protesters in recent days say they feel less safe on Romanian streets following the downsizing of the country's police force. The government reduced police patrol officers in 2018 by some 3 percent.
It also offered early retirement to judges. Both measures were seen as an attempt by the current ruling coalition to get rid of seasoned professionals and have them replaced with more submissive judges and police officers.
Former Justice Minister Tudorel Toader confirmed that almost 11,000 prisoners had been granted early release from October 2017 to November 2018, including for reasons such as their cells were too small or unhygienic.
By January, a total of 188 of those released had been convicted again of a crime and put back behind bars after committing violent crimes such as rape, attempted murder, and murder.
Dancila is seeking to present her government as more reform-minded since Social Democrat leader and lower-house speaker Liviu Dragnea began serving a 3 1/2-year sentence for corruption in May.
Dancila has been selected as the party's candidate in the presidential election later this year, running against the center-right Iohannis.
There has also been renewed criticism about a special department created solely to investigate magistrates, which critics say discourages and intimidates prosecutors.
The Venice Commission, an advisory body on constitutional matters for the Council of Europe, said the section "risks being an obstacle to the fight against corruption and organized crime."
Prosecutor Sandu said, "In my opinion, if something like this [case of Macesanu] had happened four or five years ago, police would have gone in [to the building where she was being held] immediately even at three in the morning to try and save the child."
"Now, [the authorities] don't go in anywhere if it's not explicitly written down because they are scared."
Observers also note that there are hundreds of missing girls in Romania, with some of the cases more than a decade old. They also point to a police force often acting with incompetence and with some of its members purported to have ties to criminal gangs often working in human trafficking.
On August 2, G4Media issued the results of an investigation that claimed some known criminal gangs and its leaders in the Caracal region are connected to the Social Democrats.