Thousands protest in Warsaw ahead of judicial reform vote

Berlin says court reform is unacceptable political ‘intervention’ in judiciary independence

Thousands gather   outside   the Supreme Court building in Warsaw, Poland to protest against changes in the judicial law and the supreme court. Photograph:  EPA/Jacek Turczyk

Thousands gather outside the Supreme Court building in Warsaw, Poland to protest against changes in the judicial law and the supreme court. Photograph: EPA/Jacek Turczyk

 

Berlin has criticised Warsaw’s latest court reforms as an unacceptable political “intervention” in judiciary independence, amid growing anti-government protests across Poland.

Ahead of a vote on Tuesday on reforms to the supreme court, several thousand people demonstrated in central Warsaw on Sunday evening outside the Sejm parliament building, with similar demonstrations in other Polish cities.

“Today we know that a great fight has begun and we know we must be together, we know we must fight against them together,” said Grzegorz Schetyna, leader of the opposition Civic Platform party.

The latest wave of Warsaw judicial reform has sparked concern in Brussels, where the European Commission is already conducting an investigation into the rule of law in Poland. Of particular concern is whether the reforms have impinged on the political independence of the body that oversees Polish elections.

“Interventions in judicial independence endanger the principles of the rules of law and separation of powers,” said German federal justice minister Heiko Maas to the Frankfurter Rundschau daily.

The ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party says the reforms will give parliament a greater say in appointing judges, making them more accountable to the public and streamline court proceedings. Critics fear a further undermining of judicial independence, arguing the appointment of a new politically dependent judicial class poses a risk to the democratic order.

Judges being replaced

At the Warsaw candelit vigil on Sunday under Polish and European Union flags, demonstrators sang protest songs and chanted “shame! shame!” while others dubbed Jaroslaw Kaczynski, leader of the ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS), a “dictator”.

Warsaw city hall, linked to the opposition, said more than 10,000 people attended. Warsaw police said the figure was closer to 4,500. 

A year after taking power at the end of 2015, after an embittered legal stand-off, Poland’s PiS government took political control of the constitutional tribunal, the country’s highest court.

In recent days the PiS administration has gone further, introducing legislation that would replace all judges in the supreme court except those appointed by the PiS justice minister, who is also the state prosecutor.

Previous demonstrations have taken place to protest against PiS control of public broadcaster TVP and efforts to limit media access to the Sejm.

‘Dictatorship’

The latest draft judicial bill comes days after another, cancelling the terms of 15 judges serving on a judicial appointments body. In future, judicial appointments will be made by the parliament, based on MP nominations. Judicial bodies can make suggestions but the speaker of parliament has no obligation to select them.

Another bill gives the minister for justice power to replace, within six months, both the presidents and directors of Polish courts, who handle the cases and finances respectively.

“We are living through the build-up of a dictatorship and anyone who thinks this doesn’t concern them is wrong, as history shows,” said Krzysztof Lozinski of the opposition group KOD.

Concern over the government’s court reform is not reflected in polls, showing Poland’s ruling PiS steady or rising, to 36 per cent support.