BUCHAREST (Reuters) - Former Romanian prime minister Adrian Nastase tried to kill himself on Wednesday when police came to take him to start a two-year jail term for corruption, a case touted by Romania as proof that it is getting tough on graft.
Nastase appeared to have attempted suicide when police arrived at his house in an upmarket part of the capital to take him to prison, the Bucharest Court of Cassation and Justice said in a statement.
A Reuters witness saw the 61-year-old, who was prime minister from 2000 to 2004, being stretchered from the house and taken away in an ambulance. Local media reported he had shot himself with a pistol and was wounded in the neck.
Prime Minister Victor Ponta, a party ally of Nastase’s, rushed to the hospital where he was being treated. “I could not stay away,” he said. “Doctors told me the situation is under control.”
The Supreme Court had earlier confirmed Nastase would have to serve two years in jail, surprising many who thought politicians were still above the law in Romania.
The failure to tackle endemic corruption in Romania and neighbouring Bulgaria, the EU’s two newest and poorest members, has led to both being blocked from joining the passport-free Schengen zone.
Nastase is the most senior politician to be convicted in Romania since the end of communist rule in 1989.
Prosecutors said $2 million (1.27 million pounds) had gone missing from the state budget in 2004 when profits from an event organised by a state construction watchdog were used to finance Nastase’s presidential campaign. Nastase lost the election to Traian Basescu, who is still president.
Nastase denied any wrongdoing and said the case was political.
Nastase had already hit the headlines this week when the scientific journal Nature accused Ponta of plagiarism in his doctoral law thesis, which was supervised by Nastase, who is a professor of law.
Ponta studied for his doctorate while a minister in Nastase’s cabinet, and his swift arrival at the hospital was testament to their continuing close relationship.
Analysts and anti-graft campaigners hailed Nastase’s original conviction in January as a step in the right direction for what the watchdog Transparency International says is the EU’s third most corrupt country, after Greece and Bulgaria.
They say putting a senior politician behind bars sends an important signal. But while a number of lawmakers have been convicted, many received suspended sentences or remain free pending a long appeal process.
A keen hunter and fisherman, Nastase was prime minister in a leftist government and retains a senior role in the Social Liberal Union (USL) alliance, which took power under Ponta last month and looks likely to win a parliamentary election due in November.
Frustration with corrupt politicians has grown in Romania as austerity measures have bitten, and demonstrations around the country earlier this year succeeded in bringing down the government.
Editing by Kevin Liffey