March 14, 2016 / 1:11 PM / a year ago

European rights body says to review Poland's new surveillance law

A man holds a banner with Jaroslaw Kaczynski, leader of ruling party Law and Justice (PiS) with the slogan "Program of the party program of the nation, Stop Demoktaturze (combine words democracy and dictatorship) of PiS" as he takes part in march demanding their government to respect the country's constitution in front of the Constitutional Court in Warsaw, Poland, March 12, 2016.Kacper Pempel

WARSAW (Reuters) - A pan-European rights body said on Monday it would review a newly amended Polish surveillance law, in a fresh challenge to the conservative government that reflects international concerns over Warsaw's commitment to democracy and the rule of law.

Last Friday the Council of Europe's advisory panel, known as the Venice Commission, issued an opinion accusing Poland's ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party of effectively crippling the country's constitutional court, a verdict that could put Warsaw on a collision course with the European Union.

While opinions of the Council of Europe are non-binding, they carry weight with the EU Commission, which has begun an unprecedented inquiry into the rule of law in Poland that could result in the suspension of Warsaw's voting rights in the EU.

The Council of Europe's Parliamentary Assembly (PACE) has now asked the Venice Commission to assess Poland's amended state surveillance law, the rights body's spokeswoman Tatiana Baeva said on Monday.

The law expands the authorities' access to digital data and loosens the legal framework limiting surveillance by law enforcement. Human rights group Amnesty International has described the law as "a major blow to human rights".

The government says it amended the law to address a ruling by the constitutional court that the legislation was imprecise and provided insufficient legal protections. It says greater surveillance is also needed to combat the threat of terrorism.

Poland's independent ombudsman has said he will challenge the law in a top court, saying parts of the legislation that allow surveillance to be extended to up to 18 months, limit court control and expand the range of potential targets may be unconstitutional.

PiS, a eurosceptic party which won last October's election with a big majority, rejects the international criticism of its record. It says it has a broad mandate to assert Warsaw's independence from Brussels and to redesign laws and institutions to reflect its traditional values.

Support for the party remains strong, with the latest poll putting it on 37 percent, almost 20 points ahead of the opposition and little changed from its October showing.

But tens of thousands of people regularly attend opposition rallies to protest against what they see as the ruling party's authoritarianism.

The Venice Commission's final opinion on Poland's surveillance law may be adopted on June 10-11, Baeva said.

The Polish government's spokesman was not immediately available to comment on the issue.

Reporting by Wiktor Szary; Editing by Gareth Jones

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