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17 Jul, 2017 01:28

1000s in Warsaw protest reforms giving Polish MPs sway over judiciary (VIDEO)

1000s in Warsaw protest reforms giving Polish MPs sway over judiciary (VIDEO)

Thousands of people flocked to the Polish Parliament building Sunday to voice opposition to the overhaul of the judiciary citing concerns that the new measures erodes judicial independence and encroaches on the rule of law.

Activists brandished EU and Polish national flags chanting “shame, shame” and “in defense of the courts” as they descended onto the streets of central Warsaw to rally against the draft bill.

The new measures, spearheaded by the ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS), will empower Parliament and the justice minister to appoint judges to the Supreme Court. The proposed legislation also envisions that the serving Supreme Court judges would be forced to retire once the new legislation comes into effect.

Critics of the measures consider it to be an assault on the Supreme Court, which among other issues, is tasked with confirming the validity of election results, and say it will dissolve the established separation of powers enshrined in the constitution.

The debate on the bill, introduced by PiS in Parliament Thursday, is scheduled to begin this Tuesday.

The opposition has meanwhile called on the activists who gathered in front of the Parliament to continue with their street action up until Tuesday in a bid to hinder the discussion. It might prove futile, however, and the bill is likely to be passed by the PiS dominated chamber as the Law and Justice Party has enjoyed a parliamentary majority since 2015.

A separate bill, passed at the behest of PiS Friday, puts Parliament in charge of the choosing members of The National Council of the Judiciary (KRS).

The KRS ensures the courts and judges are independent, oversees the compliance with the code of ethical conduct by courts, and reviews the candidacy of potential judges. Members were previously selected by professional associations of judges before being appointed by the president.

On Wednesday, another PiS sponsored bill was passed enabling the justice minister to appoint the heads of the regional and appeal courts. The move was described by the president of the Supreme Court, Małgorzata Gersdorf, as a “black Wednesday for the country.”

“We see a high threat of de facto subordination of the judiciary to the executive in Poland. It is dangerous to the democratic system,” she added, as cited by Reuters.

Speaking at the rally in Warsaw, Wladyslaw Frasyniuk, a former activist of the Solidarity Movement, pledged support to the judges of the Supreme Court urging them to “stand up, just as we are, in defense of the Constitution,” as cited by RT’s Ruptly video agency.

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“Let everyone do their thing,” Frasyniuk said, calling on opponents of the reforms to unite in the face of PiS’ persistent attempts to water down the power of judges.

“From today, every paving stone, every child, every adult citizen has the right and duty to shout out: go away with the Duck [nickname of Law and Justice party leader, Jaroslaw Kaczynski] – dictator!” Frasyniuk said.

A sign reading “Duck off” was spotted in the crowd, which according to the police estimates numbered some 4,500 people.

Warsaw city hall, however, reported the number more than twice as high, saying that the attendance surpassed 10,000 people.

On Sunday evening, large crowd of protesters staged a vigil, lighting up candles in front of the Supreme Court in a gesture of solidarity with the judges.

The activists encircled the building with candles at the end of the protest.

Poland’s ongoing judicial reform, which PiS embarked on once assuming power in 2015, has already seen the powers of the country’s Constitutional Court severely diminished following a months-long standoff between the Constitutional Court and the government despite mass popular protests and sharp criticism from the European Union.

The current phase of the reform also drew condemnation from European institutions. Nils Muiznieks, the commissioner for human rights at the Council of Europe, described the reform of the National Judiciary Council as “a setback for judicial independence.”

READ MORE: EU spends ‘so much time’ on Poland despite its own problems – Poland’s PM to MEPs

Manfred Weber, the head of a major grouping in the European Parliament, EPP, urged the European Commission to “take measures against the Polish government.” Weber said its attempt to takeover the judicial branch is “putting an end to the rule of law and democracy in Poland and leaving the European community of values,” as cited by the European Observer.