Poles protest EU comments and govt moves against top court

Poles protest EU comments and govt moves against top court

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WARSAW, Poland (AP) — The European Union's executive remains open to triggering sanctions against Poland for limiting judicial independence despite the Polish president's veto of parts of a controversial legal overhaul, a top EU official said Wednesday.

The statement drew a protest in Warsaw from a few dozen right-wingers who support the EU-skeptic government's view that reforming the justice system is an internal Polish matter.

At same time, 200 other protesters were showing their displeasure with the conservative government's policies, especially with the legal overhaul. In recent days, tens of thousands of Poles have been protesting government moves against the judiciary — actions that have also drawn EU criticism.

"Some things have changed and some things have not," European Commission Vice President Frans Timmermans said at a news conference in Brussels.

Timmermans said the Commission was giving Poland one month to resolve all the problems with the judicial changes approved by Poland's parliament. It was not clear what the repercussions would be if Poland fails to do so in that timeline.

Polish officials reacted defiantly, saying they have a democratic mandate for the changes and would not be swayed by what government spokesman Rafal Bochenek called "blackmail" from the EU.

"Our duty is to change the judiciary, and we will change it," Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro said. "We are doing it in a democratic way, and nobody will prevent us. No threat will make any impression on us."

The ruling Law and Justice party took steps after winning power in 2015 that have gradually reduced the ability of the Constitutional Tribunal to act as a check on the party's power. It took its shake-up further this month when lawmakers passed three bills putting the rest of the court system under the ruling party's control.

Supporters of the bills say Poland's courts are inefficient and corrupt. While most Poles agree, many people saw a power grab in the legislative package's quick approval and turned out by the tens of thousands to stage nightly candlelight protests.

President Andrzej Duda, who long has been loyal to the ruling party, unexpectedly announced Monday that he would veto two of the bills, including one that would have allowed the justice minister to immediately dismiss any of the Supreme Court judges.

Duda signed a third bill giving the justice minister power to name the heads of lower courts.

Timmermans said he welcomed Duda's rejection of the two bills. But he said other parts of Poland's judicial overhaul, including the earlier takeover of the constitutional court, "increase significantly the systemic threat to the rule of law" in Poland.

He also said any acts that lead to the dismissal or forced retirement of Supreme Court judges would lead the Commission to "immediately" act to issue a formal warning to Poland, which could result in Poland losing its EU voting rights.

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