November 22, 2017 / 8:44 AM / 2 months ago

Polish civic groups urge parliament to stop work on judiciary overhaul

WARSAW (Reuters) - Proposals to overhaul Poland’s judiciary which will be debated by parliament on Wednesday would end the country’s status as a democratic state of law, more than two dozen civic society organisations said, urging lawmakers to stop work on the bills.

People gather near the Supreme Court building during candlelight protest against judicial reforms, in Warsaw, Poland October 1, 2017. Agencja Gazeta/Kuba Atys via REUTERS/Files

The parliament will debate amendments agreed by President Andrzej Duda and the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party to two controversial bills after Duda unexpectedly vetoed the original proposals in July, following nationwide protests and warnings from Western allies about politicization of the courts.

Some 28 organisations, including Amnesty International, the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights and the Batory Foundation, said the proposals, give the parliament nearly a free hand in the makeup of the Supreme Court and how judges are chosen, are “in gross conflict” with the Constitution.

“The introduction of these amendments will mean that Poland will definitely cease to be a democratic state of law,” the groups said in a joint petition.

“We request the immediate stoppage of parliamentary work on (the bills) and demand the start of extensive public consultations on this.”

The eurosceptic PiS says reform of the judicial system is needed because the courts are slow, inefficient and steeped in a communist-era mentality.

Duda, an ally of PiS, has been embroiled in confrontations with the party since his veto, when he said the bills were giving too much power to one party and the justice minister.

But work on the amendments has been done in secrecy, spurring criticism from the United Nations and the European Commission that it could further damage the country’s judicial system.

Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the leader of PiS and Poland’s paramount politician, has met privately with Duda several times for talks. Details of those meetings have been kept secret and it is not known what consensus has been reached.

“The President gave us some hope that the Constitution would not be so continually abused,” Irena Kaminska, a judge and a member of the Themis association of judges, said. “For a moment I had hoped there would be a breakthrough, but it hasn’t turned out to be so.”

PiS has a majority in the parliament and should the bills pass this could potentially open the road for the party’s more radical reforms.

Marcin Matczak, with the Batory Foundation in Warsaw, said this could lead to changes in the electoral system, giving PiS total domination.

“After the (court) laws are implemented the government will be able to rule eternally,” he said. “There will be no one to defend us.”

Writing by Lidia Kelly; Editing by Toby Chopra

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