Laura Codruta Kovesi is considered a symbol of the fight against graft in Romania, one of the EU's most corruption-plagued members

Bucharest (AFP) - Romanian President Klaus Iohannis on Monday finally dismissed top anti-graft prosecutor Laura Codruta Kovesi after long resisting attempts to remove her by the country’s left-wing government.

The campaign to sack Kovesi, considered a symbol of the fight against graft in one of the EU’s most corruption-plagued members, has attracted vehement criticism from the opposition and concern from the international community.

The government had claimed victory in May after the Constitutional Court ordered the president to fire the popular head of Romania’s Anti-Corruption Prosecutor’s Office (DNA).

But the president delayed, leading prominent figures in the ruling Social Democratic Party (PSD) to raise the prospect of his impeachment.

“In a state governed by the rule of law decisions of the Constitutional Court must be respected… Romania’s president signed the decree today,” to sack Kovesi, Iohannis’ office said in a statement.

An emotional Kovesi confirmed in a televised statement that she would no longer be working for the DNA but said she would remain a prosecutor.

“I have a message for the Romanian people: corruption can be defeated. Don’t give up!” Kovesi added, flanked by dozens of prosecutors.

She took aim at the government’s controversial legal reforms, which critics say will hobble the powers of the judiciary.

“The brutal way in which they are trying to force through the justice reforms shows they want protection for the past, the present and the future,” she said.

- ‘Harming Romania’s image’ -

Romanian President Klaus Iohannis had long resisted government moves to sack top anti-graft prosecutor Laura Codruta Kovesi

Kovesi, a 45-year-old former basketball player, had held the high-profile post since 2013.

She was re-appointed by Iohannis for another three-year term in 2016.

But in February the government launched a process to oust her, with Justice Minister Tudorel Toader accusing her of “violating the constitution” and “harming Romania’s image” abroad.

Iohannis, who is from the centre-right and has frequently clashed with the government, had initially said he was “not convinced” by arguments to remove Kovesi.

The European Commission and the Council of Europe had also criticised the push to sack her.

Spokesman Christian Wigand said Monday the Commission does not comment on national court judgements, but added that if the DNA’s record was called in to question it could affect Romania’s progress under the special monitoring Brussels exercises over the country’s judicial system.

- ‘Unprecedented attacks’ -

Protesters scuffle with police at a protest against the sacking of anti-graft prosecutor Laura Codruta Kovesi in May

The DNA had stepped up the campaign against corruption among local and national elected officials in recent years, earning accusations of abuse of power and the enmity of many in Romania’s political class.

In February, she reported that despite “unprecedented attacks” by the government, in 2017 the DNA had brought 1,000 people to trial, including three ministers, five MPs and a senator.

Over the winter, thousands of protestors took to the streets in support of Kovesi. There have also been waves of protests against the judicial reforms.

Twelve Western countries, led by the US, in late June also warned Romania that some of the reforms could “impede international law enforcement cooperation”.

Critics have said the country risks going down a similar path to Poland and Hungary, whose governments have also been accused of weakening independent institutions and the rule of law.

PSD leader Liviu Dragnea said Kovesi’s sacking was not enough, adding that “deep reform” of the DNA was necessary.

“We’ll call it a victory when this country is liberated,” he said, alluding to the PSD’s campaign against what it calls a “parallel state” among the judiciary.

He also did not rule out the party pursuing Iohannis’ impeachment.

“The president has shown that he doesn’t respect the constitution,” Dragnea told reporters on Monday.

Some have accused the PSD of advancing its reforms to protect Dragnea, widely acknowledged as the most powerful politician in the country.

Dragnea was barred from the post of prime minister thanks to a 2016 suspended prison sentence for electoral fraud, and just last month he received another prison sentence over a fake jobs scandal.

Dragnea said he would appeal the latest sentence and would not stand down.