European rights leader worried by judicial changes in Poland

AP News
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Posted: Apr 03, 2017 11:29 AM

WARSAW, Poland (AP) — A leading European human rights official expressed concerns Monday over planned changes to the Polish justice system that would give parliament more control over the appointment of judges.

The law would allow parliament to appoint 15 of 25 members of Poland's National Council of the Judiciary, a body of judges that nominates other judges. It would also allow for all current members to be dismissed.

The populist government in Warsaw says that the changes would help Poland's courts — known for working too slowly — to be faster and more efficient.

But human rights officials see the planned changes as part of a drive by the ruling Law and Justice party to cement power by weakening the constitutional system of checks and balances on the government. The party has also faced criticism for eroding the independence of the constitutional court, public media and prosecutors, prompting the European Union to accuse Warsaw of violating the rule of law.

Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights Nils Muiznieks said in a letter to Poland's parliament speaker, Marek Kuchcinski, that he worries the new changes planned for the judicial system would violate the separation of powers and the independence of the judiciary.

"In order to preserve the principles of separation of powers and the independence of the judiciary, the selection of members of the judiciary should be a decision process wholly independent of the government, so as to stave off the risk of any undue political influence," Muiznieks wrote. The Council of Europe is distinct from the EU and aims to promote human rights and democratic values.

Muiznikeks released the letter Monday as Polish lawmakers prepare to discuss it in coming days.

His statement echoes similar criticism by the OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights and Poland's Human Rights Commissioner.

The powerful leader of the ruling Law and Justice party, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, said Monday he considers the current constitution, in effect for the past 20 years, to be a "post-communist" constitution, the latest remark seen as trying to discredit the post-communist constitutional order as he tries to remake the country.

He and his followers believe communists and their allies retained too much power after the fall of communism and that deep institutional change is needed to purge them, something they argue they have an electoral mandate to do.