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Council of Europe reiterates admonishment of Poland over constitutional standoff

The Council of Europe's constitutional watchdog - the Venice Commission - has admonished Poland once more for failing to unblock the work of the Constitutional Tribunal. Warsaw has one month to get its house in order.

The Council of Europe's Venice Commission warned Poland on Friday in a non-binding opinion that the reforms in Poland targeting democracy and the rule of law could "delay and obstruct the work of the tribunal" and "possibly make its work ineffective," adding that the changes made were "too limited in scope," although noting that the final package offered by the government was an improvement on an earlier version.

"For the first time, the Venice Commission has been confronted by the situation where a country refuses to cooperate with it," Commission chief Gianni Buquicchio told Polish media.

The country's highest legislative watchdog has been stymied since the Law and Justice (PiS) government pushed through changes to the tribunal's decision-making rules soon after coming to power late last year, alarming the European Union and triggering street protests in Poland. In March, the Venice Commission warned that the reforms threatened democracy, human rights and the rule of law in Poland.

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The provisions that troubled the commission included one which allows a case to be postponed for up to six months upon request by four judges. It also criticized a provision giving the prosecutor general - a government appointee - the right to block a hearing by his or her absence.

"[I]nstead of unblocking the precarious situation of the constitutional tribunal, the parliament and government continue to challenge its position as the final arbiter of constitutional issues and attribute this authority to themselves," the Venice Commission said.

The first law was struck down in March as unconstitutional by the Constitutional Tribunal itself, but government refused to publish the ruling in the official gazette, which is necessary for it to take legal effect.

Meanwhile, an EU deadline is approaching for the government to address accusations saying it has made the country less democratic. The European Commission has given Poland until the end of the month to amend legal changes it made. The rule of law procedure could lead to Poland being suspended from voting on EU law, which would require the agreement of all 27 other member states.

Warsaw sent no representative to the commission's deliberations on the reforms and has previously accused its legal experts of sympathising with the opposition.

Government spokesman Rafal Bochenek said the experts were "biased" and that their assessment contained "factual errors."

"[It is] the government's job to decide how to carry out the reforms, not international institutions that do not know how our legal system works in its entirety," Bochenek said.

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jbh/bw (AFP, Reuters, AP)

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