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Protests as Poland rejects top court ruling

March 12, 2016

Protestors have hit the streets in Poland as a constitutional crisis deepens. The eurosceptic PiS government has not recognized a top court ruling that invalidated controversial legal reforms.

Polen Demonstration Justizreform
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/J. Turczyk

Poland's conservative Law and Justice (PiS) government on Saturday said it would ignore a Constitutional Tribunal ruling invalidating its legal reforms, a day after a European rights body argued the controversial changes to the top court threatened democracy and the rule of law.

Since winning October elections, the PiS has pushed through a number of reforms in the media, constitutional court and other institutions that have garnered criticism and concern from the EU, United States and other rights institutions.

The latest battle lines have been drawn over the constitutional court, after PiS passed amendents in December increasing the number of judges to make a ruling, requiring the court to review cases in the order they were received, and changing the threshold for a decision from a simple majority to a two-thirds majority.

Critics argue the changes are designed to slow down the court and render it dysfunctional in order to prevent judges from blocking controversial PiS legislation.

Rights body criticizes legal reforms

On Friday, the Venice Commission, an advisory body of the Council of Europe, made a non-binding judgment that the changes had "crippled" the Constitutional Tribunal and "endangered not only the rule of law but also the functioning of the democratic system."

The Council of Europe also said the government must follow the constitutional court's decision.

That judgment is likely to put Poland on a fresh collision course with the EU, which has referred Poland to a review at the European Commission over concerns of a retrenchment of democracy and rule of law.

A negative decision from the EU's executive body could lead to Poland losing its voting rights at the EU level.

On Saturday, Poland's government said it would ask parliament to review the Venice Commission's judgment but would still not recognize the Constitutional Tribunal's ruling.

The government has refused to officially publish the top court's findings, effectively blocking them from going into force.

"We uphold the position that Poland's government cannot publish the statement of some of the constitutional court judges, which is not based on law," government spokesman Rafal Bochenek said.

Poland Protests - People Power on the March

Tens of thousands protest

Controversial PiS reforms since coming to power last year have triggered waves of protests.

On Saturday, an estimated 50,000 opposition protestors marched in the capital Warsaw to defend the constitutional court. Protests were also held in Poznan and Wroclaw.

"Poles used to demonstrate to change the state. Today they demonstrate to preserve it," Ryszard Petru, chief of the liberal-conservative party Nowoczesna, told the crowd of protestors.

Former justice minister Borys Budka of the Civic Platform, the party that ruled Poland from 2007 until last year, said, "in contrast to those who write justice in their name, we are the ones standing on the side of justice."

PiS has argued it is trying to "repair" the damage done by the Civic Platform during the party's rule.

cw/rc (AP, dpa, Reuters)