Polish Senate approves controversial judicial bill

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President Andrzej Duda appears likely to sign the controversial bill into law. He’s due to meet the high court’s chief justice Monday, a Senate statement said.

CNN’s Polish affiliate TVN reported that demonstrators came out on the streets and chanted “traitors!” and “disgrace!” shortly after the Senate approved the bill — just before 2 a.m. local time — following a 16-hour debate.

The bill’s passage could mark a turning point for the Eastern European country — one of the first former communist nations to join the European Union.

The move by the ruling right-wing Law and Justice party, known as the PiS, to control one of the last remaining independent government institutions has prompted concern in Washington and triggered warnings from the EU.

The party insists it is simply carrying out needed judicial reform.

EU: Judicial independence at risk

In a speech Wednesday, a top EU official threatened the use of Article 7 — a mechanism that would allow for sanctions against Poland and possible suspension of its voting rights in the bloc. The measure has never been used before.
“Each individual law, if adopted, would seriously erode the independence of the Polish judiciary,” said Frans Timmermans, first vice president of the European Commission. “Collectively, they would abolish any remaining judicial independence and put the judiciary under full political control of the government.”
Polish Ombudsman Adam Bodnar addresses a session of the Polish Senate on Friday.

European Council President Donald Tusk, a former Polish Prime Minister from the Civic Platform party, warned in a statement Thursday of “dangerous consequences” for Poland’s standing on the world stage and said he had asked Duda for an urgent meeting.

“It is our shared responsibility to prevent a black scenario that could ultimately lead to the marginalization of Poland in Europe,” he said.

“Bringing the courts under the control of the governing party in the manner proposed by the Law and Justice Party … will ruin the already tarnished public opinion about Polish democracy. We must therefore find a solution which will be accepted by the Poles, the parliamentary majority and the opposition, the President and the European Union.”

Protesters hold candles  during a demonstration Friday night outside the Polish Parliament.

But Poland’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs rejected such concerns. “The judicial reform bill in question will not affect the independence of courts or judges and seeks only to regain the citizens’ respect for the judiciary,” the ministry said. “Reforms proposed in Poland are in the spirit of judicial systems in other European countries.”

In a televised address Thursday, Polish Prime Minister Beata Szydlo explained her party’s effort toward what it says is judicial reform.

“We know the courts are performing badly. That’s why we are answering the expectations of the Polish people, who want them to perform well and fairly,” she said, according to state media. “Today, this is not the case.”

Protesters flood streets

The measure passed in the Senate early Saturday is one of four aimed at changing the judiciary. Last week, Duda approved the first law, which allows Parliament to appoint 15 out of 25 members to the National Council of the Judiciary.

The lower house of Parliament passed the latest bill Thursday.

Poles have taken to the streets in candlelight protests, with many using the hashtag #wolneSądy or “free courts” on social media.

Wojciech Mosiejczuk, a game designer and filmmaker, posted an image on Twitter of the Senate vote count, describing it as the “penultimate nail” in the coffin of Poland’s judicial system.

Guy Verhofstadt, a Belgian lawmaker who leads the liberal grouping in the European Parliament, tweeted Saturday that he was confident those opposed to the bill would continue the fight.

“Polish citizens know Poland can only be strong & prosperous if democratic and part of the EU. That’s why they will never give up,” Verhofstadt said.

Visits by Trump, British royals

The public outcry over efforts to curtail judiciary independence has flown largely under the radar amid recent high-profile visits in Poland from US President Donald Trump and the British royals.

But the US State Department tweeted a warning Friday to Poland “to ensure that any judicial reform does not violate (the) constitution & respects judicial independence.”

When asked whether the Trump administration would ask Duda to veto the measure, State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said: “I am not aware if we will ask him to do that. But I can’t get too much into what some of the private diplomatic conversations are, so let me just leave it as we are concerned about that legislation.”

Nauert said the State Department had passed along Washington’s concern that the bill limits the judiciary and potentially weakens the rule of law.

Since coming to power, the Law and Justice party has eroded other institutions and freedoms: The right to peaceful assembly has become more restricted, and new media laws have made it more difficult for the press to operate independently.

Poland plummeted 29 spots in 2016’s World Press Freedom Index, landing at No. 47. In 2017, it dropped to 54.

CNN’s Antonia Mortensen reported from Warsaw, while Laura Smith-Spark wrote from London and Steve Almasy from Atlanta. CNN’s Eliza Mackintosh, Sara Mazloumsaki, Paul Murphy and Christina Zdanowicz contributed to this report.



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