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Why are judges from across Europe protesting in Poland?

Judges from at least 14 European countries will march in Warsaw on January 11 in defence of the rule of law in Poland, as the Polish Senate considers a law which would significantly erode judicial independence.

Judges are expected to join the march from the Netherlands, Austria, Greece, Germany, Hungary, Croatia, Portugal, Denmark, France, Italy, Norway, Romania, Estonia and Ireland.

Organisers say the march is non-political and centred on legal issues and values.

“It’s important to have people say ‘enough is enough’, because a campaign against judges has been running for years, with government politicians leading the attacks,” says the organiser, Poznan district judge Monika Frackowiak.

Since 2015, the Polish government has introduced a series of new legislative and policy measures that critics claim have already undermined the independence of the judiciary.

These include politicising judicial appointments, giving the minister of justice the exclusive power to dismiss and appoint presidents and vice-presidents of courts.

Between September 2017 and February 2018, the Polish authorities removed more than 130 presidents and vice-presidents of common courts, and replaced them with officials chosen by the minister of justice.

The law on the supreme court was also changed, so that members of parliament rather than judges themselves have the power to make judicial appointments.

In June 2019, the Court of Justice of the European Union ruled that the amended law on the supreme court was in breach of EU law, while in November the court also declared that the law, which introduced different retirement ages for female and male judges, was discriminatory and against EU law.

Poland’s ruling nationalist Law and Justice party (PiS) says its reforms make the judiciary more efficient.

The latest bone of contention is a draft law, already approved by the lower house of parliament, which would allow judges who question planned reforms to be disciplined. The Polish Senate is set to vote on the law next week.

In December, former EU Council president Donald Tusk warned that Poland risked blundering out of the EU if the new gagging law on judges was passed.

“They [the Polish government] simply have to withdraw this [gagging law] project,” he added.

Justice Frackowiak is herself said to have suffered years of intimidation and harassment in relation to her stance on judicial independence.

“I feel like an entire machinery is against me,” she said late last year. She is one of more than 30 Polish judges who have been subjected to ongoing disciplinary procedures.

A number of international human rights organisations are also taking part in the Warsaw protest.

“This unprecedented display of solidarity with Polish judges is a response to the growing severity of the crisis facing the country’s judiciary,” says Draginja Nadaždin, the director of Amnesty International Poland.

“The changes would bring the remaining free elements of the Polish courts under the political control of the executive branch, spelling the end of the separation of powers in Poland. We stand in solidarity with all those who are marching in defence of human rights, the rule of law and the independence of Poland’s judiciary.”

On January 10, the commissioner for human rights at the Council of Europe also criticised the new law.

“I am particularly concerned that the provisions of the new bill are designed to further silence dissent among critical judges and prosecutors and curtail their independence,” the commissioner, Dunja Mijatovic, said in a letter to Polish Senate speaker Tomasz Grodzki, published by Poland’s foreign ministry.

Poland’s Deputy Foreign Affairs Minister Szymon Szynkowski vel Sek told a news conference that Mijatovic’s letter constituted “unacceptable meddling” in Poland’s internal affairs.

The government’s response to the international protest scheduled for January 11 will be watched closely across Europe.

Photo: Amnesty International