Romanian prosecutors order ex-deputy prime minister to stand trial over land deal

File Photo: Sevil Shhaideh arrives at the National Anti-corruption Directorate headquarters, in Bucharest, Romania, September 22, 2017. Inquam Photos/Octav Ganea/via REUTERS

BUCHAREST (Reuters) - Romanian anti-corruption prosecutors ordered former deputy prime minister Sevil Shhaideh on Wednesday to stand trial on charges of abuse of office, for illegally transferring state land to a county council long controlled by the ruling party's boss.

The pending trial against Shhaideh, 53, deals a further blow to the leader of the ruling Social Democrat Party (PSD) who was sentenced to jail in a separate abuse of office case earlier this month in a preliminary verdict that can be appealed.

Shhaideh, who denies wrongdoing, resigned her post in October. She is a close ally of PSD leader Liviu Dragnea, who holds a tight grip over the ruling party but cannot be premier because of a previous conviction in a vote rigging case.

Transparency International ranks Romania among the European Union's most corrupt states and Brussels is keeping its justice system under special monitoring.

The European Commission, the U.S. State Department and centrist President Klaus Iohannis have criticised Dragnea's ruling party for trying to weaken Romania's criminal law.

PSD lawmakers have pushed through parliament a judicial overhaul that puts magistrates under greater political control. They have also passed changes to criminal procedures that make it harder to punish corruption and other crimes.

They plan to change the criminal code by mid-July to decriminalise abuse of office offenses, like those faced by Shhaideh.

Thousands of magistrates have signed letters and held silent protests against the judicial overhaul, which, like the new criminal procedures, is on hold due to challenges filed at the Constitutional Court.

Prosecutors said in a statement they had evidence that Shhaideh, then a deputy regional development minister, had helped in 2013 to illegally transfer 324 hectares (800 acres) of prime land near the Danube River from the state to the county council of Teleorman, which leased it to private operators.

Dragnea served as head of the Teleorman county council for more than a decade until 2012 and has had business ties to the region. Prosecutors are investigating Dragnea in a third case on suspicion of forming a criminal group to siphon off cash from state projects, some of them EU-funded.

That investigation focuses on road construction firm Tel Drum SA, formerly controlled by Teleorman council.

(Reporting by Luiza Ilie; Editing by Peter Graff)