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Thousands rally in Slovakia to accuse new government's plan of going easier on corruption

BRATISLAVA, Slovakia (AP) — Thousands rallied in front of Slovakia's Parliament on Wednesday to condemn a plan by the new government of populist Prime Minister Robert Fico to eliminate the office of the special prosecutor dealing with major crime and corruption.

The rally took place as lawmakers concluded a debate over that and other proposed changes to the penal code. The ruling coalition, which has a majority in Parliament, postponed the final vote until Thursday.

A number of people linked to the prime minister's party face prosecution in corruption scandals. European Union institutions have questioned the planned changes, which also include reducing punishments for corruption and a significant shortening of the statute of limitations.

“It's a matter of fact that they're afraid of you,” Michal Šimečka, who leads the liberal Progressive Slovakia, the strongest opposition party, told the peaceful crowd. “They hope it will be all over tomorrow, but that's only a beginning."

President Zuzana Čaputová said she was ready to veto the amendment and bring a constitutional challenge if the ruling three-party coalition overrides her veto. The opposition parties also plan a challenge.

It’s unclear how the Constitutional Court might rule.

Such protests started two months ago and have spread from the capital, Bratislava, to more than 30 cities and towns and even abroad.

Fico returned to power for the fourth time last year after his leftist party won Sept. 30 parliamentary elections on a pro-Russia and anti-American platform. His critics worry Slovakia could abandon its pro-Western course and follow the direction of Hungary under Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.

Under the plan approved by Fico’s coalition government, crimes such as graft, organized crime and extremism would be taken over by prosecutors in regional offices, which haven’t dealt with such crimes for 20 years.

The ruling coalition forced a fast-track parliamentary procedure to approve the changes, meaning the draft legislation was not reviewed by experts and others usually involved in the process. The coalition also limited time for parliamentary debate.

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