Polish Senate backs judicial overhaul, defying protests, EU

Polish Senate backs judicial overhaul, defying protests, EU

After more than 15 hours of debate, the upper house of the Polish parliament approved its judicial reform bill which Brussels has warned might cost Warsaw certain rights in the European Council.

Tens of thousands of people took to the streets of Warsaw and towns across Poland on Thursday night to protest the ruling party's drive to reorganize all levels of the judiciary, including contentious legislation that gives control of the nation's Supreme Court to the president instead of to judges.

Opposition lawmakers and celebrities joined the crowd in front of the Presidential Palace in Warsaw as protesters held up candles, waved national and European Union flags and chanted "free courts" and "democracy".

The ruling party then moved on to legislation that would immediately retire all the judges on the Supreme Court except those designated by Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro, and would lower the requirements for future judges chosen for the court-a step critics say would allow the ruling party to pack the court with its allies.

While noting that Poland was a close ally of Washington, the US State Department said America was concerned by the legislation, according to a statement.

"We urge all sides to ensure that any judicial reform does not violate Poland's constitution or global legal obligations and respects the principles of judicial independence and separation of powers", it said in a statement.

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European Union president, Donald Tusk, Poland's former prime minister, has appealed to President Andrzej Duda for a meeting to seek ways out of the situation that, he said, goes against EU values and is destructive to Poland's worldwide image.

Since being elected in 2015, PiS has tightened government control over courts and prosecutors, as well as state media, and introduced restrictions on public gatherings and the activity of non-governmental organizations.

It also gives the president the power to impose regulations on the court's work and the cases it should handle, while also creating a chamber overseen by the justice minister that would handle suspected breaches of regulations and ethics. The current term ends in 2020. The senate, dominated by the ruling Law and Justice party is to vote the bill, approved earlier by the parliament. The bill passed 235-192 with 23 abstentions.

The government of the EU's biggest eastern member state says the changes are needed to make courts more accountable and to ensure state institutions serve all Poles, not just the "elites" it says are the support base for the centrist opposition. If the PiS government does not back down, Poland could face fines and even a suspension of its voting rights, although other eurosceptic European Union governments, notably Hungary, are likely to veto strict punishments. Critics say it kills judicial independence and violates the rule of law.

The PiS has offered some concessions on demand from the president, but has presented criticism from overseas as unacceptable meddling in the domestic affairs of the country, which overthrew communism in 1989 and joined the European Union in 2004.

"We will not give into pressure. We will not be intimidated by Polish and foreign defenders of the interests of the elite", Prime Minister Beata Szydlo said in an address on state television.

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