June 5, 2018 / 1:56 PM / 10 months ago

Poland's Walesa throws weight behind appeal to EU over reform of courts

WARSAW (Reuters) - Poland’s Lech Walesa, who led protests and strikes that shook communist rule in the 1980s, has thrown his authority behind moves to persuade the European Union to do more to stop reforms in the country which critics say threaten the rule of law.

Lech Walesa speaks as he attends European Ideas Network Francisco Lucas Pires merit award ceremony in Riga, Latvia May 24, 2018. REUTERS/Ints Kalnins

Walesa, 74, who led the Solidarity movement that contributed to the end of communist rule in Europe, joined representatives of NGOs and citizen movements in an appeal to the EU’s executive over reforms of the judiciary which they say harm the independence of the courts.

The European Commission last month gave Poland until late June to reverse the reforms introduced by the nationalist-minded, eurosceptical Law and Justice (PiS) party which has been in power since 2015.

Under the overhaul, the justice minister was given the power to fire court heads without providing justification and subject to no review. Among other measures, PiS also decided to cut the terms of Supreme Court judges, retiring 40 percent of them.

The EU has already launched a procedure to strip Warsaw of its voting rights over the issue and the Polish leadership has offered some concessions on the reforms.

But the core of the reforms, which come into force in early July, remain.

The only way now to stop the destruction of judicial independence in Poland is by a ruling of the EU Court of Justice, said the appeal to European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker signed by Walesa and NGOs in a group called the Front Europejski.

“In representing civic organisations in Poland, we are calling upon the European Commission to take immediate steps to prevent the progressive dismantling of the independence of the judiciary in our country,” it said.

Under the reforms, the new Supreme Court judges will be appointed by the president who is a PiS ally. This is the Supreme Court that will decide directly about the validity of election results.

Warsaw says the changes were necessary to push aside judges left over from the Communist era. It also says that the reforms will improve the way and speed courts in Poland function.

Walesa won the Nobel peace Prize in 1983 and, with the collapse of communist power in Europe, went on to serve as president for five years until December 1995.

In January 2017, Poland’s government-affiliated history institute said it had new evidence that Walesa had been a paid informant for the secret police in the 1970s. He denies the accusations.

Reporting by Marcin Goclowski; Editing by Richard Balmforth

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