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24th Jan 2020

Polish judges under 'political control', watchdog warns

The way Poland disciplined its judges gave rise to political abuse, a European anti-corruption watchdog has said, but Poland's ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party is to tighten the leash further still.

"The way the current system has been set up, with the strong involvement of the executive in these proceedings (be it the minister of justice in disciplinary proceedings of ordinary judges or the president when it comes to the Supreme Court), leaves judges increasingly vulnerable to political control, thereby undermining judicial independence," Greco, an anti-corruption body at the Council of Europe, a pan-European watchdog based in Strasbourg, said on Monday (16 December).

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"It therefore strongly urges the Polish authorities as a matter of priority to amend the disciplinary procedures applicable to judges, to exclude any potential undue influence from the executive powers therein," it added.

The fact the minister of justice has been given the power to hire or fire presidents of ordinary courts on a whim also gave rise to concern over "political influence", Greco added.

And the fact PiS already got rid of 160 presidents and vice-presidents in this way in the past year was a matter of "deep regret", it said.

Greco started monitoring the rule of law in Poland already in 2012.

Things were far from ideal back then.

But they deteriorated after PiS got into power in 2015 and began to reform the judiciary in a way which, it said, purged communist-era corruption, but which its critics said gave the ruling party mastery over the courts.

The European Commission started a sanctions procedure against Warsaw in 2017.

And the latest Greco report noted that international pressure had had some impact, with PiS repealing forced retirements of some Supreme Court judges in a "welcome" step last year.

But the Polish government's new disciplinary powers had already seen some judges attacked for referring cases to the EU court in Luxembourg or for voicing criticism of PiS reforms, Greco noted.

And that type of abuse could get worse under a new law to be discussed by the Polish parliament, the Sejm, where PiS has a majority, later this week.

Judges could in future be punished for taking part in undefined "political activities" or for questioning the authority of PiS-appointed colleagues under the new measures.

They would have to apply some national laws even if these clashed with EU legislation, questioning the primacy of European law in Poland - a fundamental aspect of any country's EU membership.

And they would have to disclose their social media activity and membership of NGOs.

"It's the imposition of martial law in the judiciary, an attempt to pacify court rulings," Bartolomiej Przymusinski, the head of Iustitia, a judges' association, said earlier this week.

It would make the Polish legal system more like that of Belarus or Russia and less like normal EU courts, he added.

It would also undermine the foundations of the EU legal order in Poland, the Civil Development Forum, a Polish NGO said.

But Poland's deputy justice minister, Sebastian Kaleta, defended the new system as being more like the one in France and accused government-critical judges of "trying to create anarchy".

Poland, last week, also drifted from its EU peers by refusing to sign up to CO2 reduction targets.

And its right-wing mores will face MEPs' scrutiny in a debate on "hate speech" in Strasbourg on Wednesday, which will look at calls by some conservative Polish NGOs to create "LGBTI-free zones" in Poland.

Wider problems

The EU, last year, also triggered a rule-of-law sanctions procedure against Hungary.

And the newly minted European Commission of president Ursula von der Leyen is being tested by developments in Malta, where top government figures were recently implicated in the murder of a journalist as well as money laundering and corruption schemes.

MEPs will debate the Maltese situation in Strasbourg on Tuesday and vote a resolution on what to do about it on Wednesday or Thursday.

The European Parliament (EP) "regrets that the European Commission in recent years has refrained from taking any concrete measures towards the Maltese Government despite repeated calls by" MEPs to do so, the Green group's draft resolution said.

The EP also "urges the new commission to enter into dialogue with the Maltese government in the context of the rule of law framework [a monitoring process] without further undue delay," the Green draft added.

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