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Rights body: Polish crippling of court undermines democracy

Polish Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski. AP photo

WARSAW, Poland — An international human rights body said Friday that if Poland’s government continues with moves that have “crippled” the country’s Constitutional Tribunal, it will “undermine democracy, human rights and the rule of law.”

The Venice Commission, an expert body with the Council of Europe human rights group, released that assessment after studying steps by Poland’s new government that have hobbled the nation’s top legislative court.

The report also found that the previous ruling party had taken steps contrary to the constitution.

The United States and the European Union are concerned about what they see as democratic backsliding in the largest eastern EU member. The EU is holding a separate investigation into rule of law in Poland. Though the Venice Commission’s opinion isn’t binding, it’s expected to influence the EU probe.

Poland’s foreign minister, Witold Waszczykowski, requested the commission’s opinion in December, after the government’s changes to the functioning of the court sparked street protests in Poland and alarmed the European Union.

The changes have effectively made the court unable to act as a check on the power of the ruling Law and Justice Party.

The crisis deepened this week after the tribunal ruled that the changes to its own functioning are unconstitutional. The government of Prime Minister Beata Szydlo said it does not consider that ruling valid and would not publish it — a step required for it to be binding.

The language of the Venice Commission’s report is softer than that in a leaked draft report last month and appears intended to create space for Szydlo’s government to roll back the controversial amendments. Still, it was sharply critical.

“As long as the situation of constitutional crisis related to the Constitutional Tribunal remains unsettled and as long as the Constitutional Tribunal cannot carry out its work in an efficient manner, not only is the rule of law in danger, but so is democracy and human rights,” the report concluded.

Law and Justice swept to power last year vowing to make deep changes in Poland. The party promised to do more to help the poor and to support traditional Catholic values. It has said its changes to the court are necessary to undo the influence of the previous governing party, Civic Platform, which it accuses of being corrupt and arrogant and of having unfairly filled state bodies to continue to exert influence even after its loss of power.

In one move, Civic Platform acted illegally to appoint two judges on the Constitutional Tribunal even though the terms of their predecessors had not ended. Law and Justice has argued that illegal moves by Civic Platform justify the disputed steps that it took.

The Venice Commission said that in its opinion, “both previous and present majorities of the Polish parliament (Sejm) have taken unconstitutional actions.”

The controversial new amendments passed in December include a new rule requiring that the court take up cases in the chronological order in which they are brought to the court. Another requires a two-thirds majority to support a ruling for it to be valid, a change from a simple majority in the past. Another contested change requires a quorum of 13 judges for rulings to be valid.

The changes have paralyzed the court, depriving it of the power to prioritize cases and preventing it from acting as a check on any new laws that Law and Justice passes.

Government critics have been furious about the government’s refusal to respect the judgment this week by the constitutional court, and there have been street protests daily. Over the previous two evenings, members of a left-wing party have projected the language of the court’s ruling onto the facade of the prime minister’s office.