Poles face international protests over attempts to muzzle judiciary

New sweeping powers to hire and fire judges have prompted concerns across EU

A protest in front of the District Court building in Lodz, Poland against changes in the judicial law and the supreme court. Photograph: EPA/Grzegorz Michalowski

A protest in front of the District Court building in Lodz, Poland against changes in the judicial law and the supreme court. Photograph: EPA/Grzegorz Michalowski

 

Attempts by the Polish authorities to enact new sweeping powers to hire and fire judges, including those in the supreme court, have prompted serious concerns and protests in fellow European Union capitals and will, on Wednesday, be deplored by the European Commission.

On Monday the leaders of five of the groupings in the European Parliament wrote to its president, urging him to warn Poland that adopting the legal reforms would have consequences.

The European Commission has opened an inquiry, still ongoing, into whether the government of the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party violated “fundamental values” of the union in, last year, emasculating the country’s constitutional tribunal, a body separate from the supreme court that rules on the constitutionality of laws. Wednesday’s discussion is expected to lead to a second legal challenge. 

Over the weekend many thousands marched in Polish cities against the measures described by opposition leaders as a creeping coup. 

Greater control

The proposed supreme court law was published late on Wednesday night, just hours after the PiS had pushed through two other contentious bills. One gives parliament greater control over the body that picks judges; the other gives the justice minister the right to replace the head of any ordinary court within six months.

The European Commission has several options – firstly, to take action under the so-called “rule of law mechanism” introduced in the Lisbon Treaty, but penalties against Poland by the European Council arising from this, including in theory suspending its voting rights, must be agreed by unanimity. Hungary’s prime minister Viktor Orban, a close ally of PiS, would certainly veto.

Or the commission may take Poland to the European Court of Justice under its infraction procedures.

Death threats

On Tuesday a commission spokesman cautioned that the measures have yet to be adopted but would not be drawn on the options beyond insisting that it “does have a panoply of measures available”.

The issue has seen fallout in Brussels where Polish journalist Dorota Bawolek, from the Polsat TV station, who asked at the commission briefing last week about possible measures against Poland, has been subjected to a far-right barrage of online abuse and threats.  

The campaign started after a journalist from RMF Radio criticised foreign and Polish journalists for trying to get the commission to malign Poland and it has included death threats, threats to shave her head, and posts of gallows. Some of the threats have been retweeted by PiS MEPs.

The Council of Europe secretary general, Thorbjørn Jagland, has raised concerns over the draft law on supreme court. He has sent a letter to the speaker of the Polish lower house of parliament, the Sejm, Marek Kuchcinski, concerning the proposed law.