Sunday

20th Sep 2020

Ugly face of Polish judicial reforms laid bare

  • Polish prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki compared judges to Nazi-era collaborators (Photo: premier.gov.pl)

The Polish government is punishing judges who oppose its controversial reforms with disciplinary action and smear campaigns, Amnesty International has said.

It is also attacking prosecutors who do not toe the line, the London-based NGO added in a report out on Thursday (4 July).

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And its assault on rule of law is creating a climate in which violence against left-wing activists is going unpunished, the NGO warned.

The government attacks were a "bald attempt to silence them [judges] and strip them of their autonomy," it said.

"If judges and prosecutors cannot operate independently, everyone's right to a fair trial is under threat," it added.

The report comes amid an EU sanctions procedure against Poland over judicial reforms which began shortly after the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party won power in 2015.

And the Amnesty survey shows just how ugly the new system has become in practice.

In one case, judge Waldemar Zurek, a vocal PiS critic, and his relatives were subject to a months-long probe by the Central Anticorruption Bureau, which included raids on his home and office.

Judge Ewa Maciejewska was interrogated for two hours by a disciplinary prosecutor after she sought an opinion from the EU court in Luxembourg on the PiS reforms.

Judge Igor Tuleya, who asked for a similar opinion, was likewise grilled.

"Launching a disciplinary investigation against judges simply because they have exercised this right raises serious concerns about interference with the administration of EU law," Amnesty said.

Judge Dorota Zabludowska was investigated because she received a prize from an anti-PiS politician, Pawel Adamowicz, the late mayor of Gdansk, who was murdered in January.

Judges Olimpia Baranska-Maluszek, Arkadiusz Krupa, and Monika Frackowiak were investigated for assorted procedural violations after they spoke in defence of judicial independence at a Polish rock festival.

Judge Dominik Czeszkiewicz was investigated when he acquitted a group of anti-PiS protesters.

And Judge Slawomir Jeksa was accused of unduly voicing political opinions when he said, in his verdict acquitting another anti-PiS protestor, that politics ought to be kept out of judicial proceedings.

"I have been a judge since 1984 and have experienced difficult times ... And the truth is, now it's even worse," judge Alina Czubieniak, who also faced disciplinary action in a similar case, told Amnesty, referring to pre-1989 communist-era Poland.

Most of the proceedings later unraveled, while some are still ongoing.

But they were accompanied by a PiS-led hate campaign, including comments at the highest level, such as that by Polish prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki in April this year comparing judges to Nazi-era collaborators.

A state-funded NGO, the Polish National Foundation, has denounced judges as a "special caste" who enjoyed impunity for their crimes.

A Twitter account called KastaWatch also conducted "online harassment and abuse of judges known for their criticism" of the PiS reforms, Amnesty said.

"There are indications that KastaWatch draws on classified or semi-classified information from government authorities," it added, referring to its screenshots of confidential EU documents and to Polish police photos of judges on a picket line.

The PiS campaign was meant to "create and sustain an environment of outright hostility toward the branch of government tasked with upholding the rule of law," Amnesty said.

Prosecutors also targeted

Prosecutors who challenged the PiS line faced a similar backlash, the NGO also said.

In one example, prosecutor Krzysztof Parchimowicz faced three disciplinary actions after he criticised the PiS justice minister, Zbigniew Ziobro, in media.

Prosecutor Piotr Wojtowicz faced action for speaking out against Ziobro's demotions of his opponents, amid nine similar cases which Amnesty found.

At the same time, PiS loyalists made some dubious decisions in cases involving street violence against left-wing activists.

When far-right thugs beat up 14 women holding an anti-fascist banner at a march in Warsaw in 2017, the prosecutor dismissed the case.

"The attackers did not intend to administer a joint beating of the victims but rather show their discontent with the fact that the victims were situated on the route of their march," his decision noted.

When five thugs beat up Andrzej Majdan, an activist with the anti-PiS NGO, the Committee for the Defence of Democracy, also in 2017, the prosecutor ended up charging Majdan himself with "participation in a physical assault".

The Amnesty report noted that a PiS reform on public assemblies from the same year has "landed hundreds of protestors in police custody".

It said the government has fired and reappointed "at least" 130 presidents and vice-presidents out of the 377 courts in Poland since it came to power.

It has also replaced all 11 regional chief prosecutors, 44 out of 45 county chief ones, and 307 out of 342 district chief ones, while demoting or firing 500 out of the 6,000 rank and file prosecutors.

And this was how "to lose the independence of the judiciary in three years", Amnesty said.

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