By Radu-Sorin Marinas
BUCHAREST (Reuters) - The head of Romania's ruling Social Democrat party, Liviu Dragnea, was sentenced to three and a half years in prison by the Supreme Court on Thursday for inciting others to abuse of office, but he will not be jailed before an appeal.
Dragnea, who is also speaker of the lower house, was found guilty of keeping two women on the payroll of a state agency in 2006-2013 even though they were employed by his party - a charge he denies. He was a county council chief at the time.
A fresh criminal conviction for Dragnea, who is already barred from becoming prime minister because of a previous conviction for vote-rigging, could weaken his grip on the country's biggest party and the five-month-old government.
Under the Romanian system, Thursday's sentence is preliminary and will not be carried out while Dragnea pursues an appeal. He will also be able to continue working as party leader and parliament speaker while the legal process continues.
Arguments about how to fight corruption in one of Europe's most graft-prone states have dominated Romanian politics since it joined the European Union just over a decade ago and magistrates have often complained of political pressures.
"Today's ruling is a courageous act by Romanian magistrates, it is of paramount significance for the judiciary," said political commentator Cristian Tudor Popescu.
At the start of 2017, attempts by Dragnea's coalition government to weaken anti-corruption legislation triggered the country's biggest protests in decades.
This week parliament approved legal changes that critics said could encourage criminals to act with impunity, the latest twist in a regional drama that has exposed the fragility of eastern Europe's post-communist democracies.
Dragnea was cleared of a separate, intellectual forgery charge on Thursday, the court said.
A final verdict, following his appeal might take months, analysts say, with magistrates on summer recess for two months until the start of September.
(Reporting by Radu Marinas; Editing by Andrew Heavens)
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Updated Date: Jun 22, 2018 00:06:36 IST