June 28, 2019 / 8:05 AM / 4 months ago

Poland must maintain judicial independence - human rights official

WARSAW (Reuters) - Poland’s government needs to do more to preserve judicial independence and avoid “undermining public confidence in it,” the Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights said in a report published on Friday.

FILE PHOTO: Poland's Law and Justice (PiS) leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski speaks during his media statement at the party headquarters in Warsaw, Poland May 22, 2019. REUTERS/Kacper Pempel/File Photo

Since taking office in 2015, Poland’s eurosceptic Law and Justice (PiS) party has carried out judicial reforms that European Union authorities say threaten the rule of law.

The party’s blend of social spending and nationalist rhetoric remains popular, however, and it is widely expected to win a national election due later this year.

In her report, commissioner Dunja Mijatovic is broadly critical of the government’s handling of judicial reforms.

“Improving accountability or efficiency of the justice system may not be pursued at the expense of judicial independence,” she said in a press release announcing the report.

“Members of the executive and the legislature have a duty to uphold the independence of the judiciary and to avoid undermining public confidence in it,” she said.

PiS has justified its actions by saying the efficiency of courts needed to be improved and the reforms would root out the lasting remains of communism, which fell in Poland 30 years ago.

Some of these changes have been rolled back in the wake of EU protests, including a law forcing Supreme Court judges into early retirement.

But Mijatovic said more needed to be done, criticizing the fusing of the functions of the justice minister and prosecutor-general and demanding the separation of the positions. She also expressed surprise at the dismissal of court presidents and vice-presidents as well as prosecutors across Poland.

Her report also touched on the need to improve women’s rights in Poland, including securing access to legal abortions.

Termination of pregnancy is legal in Poland in case of rape, when the woman’s life or health are in danger, or if the fetus is irreparably damaged, but media and NGOs have reported that women encounter difficulties obtaining abortion in such cases.

Evgeni Tanchev, an adviser to the Europe Copurt of Justice, said on Thursday that a supreme court reform in Poland could undermine the independence of its judiciary. In Warsaw, the government said it disagreed with Tanchev’s opinion and rules on the judiciary met international standards.

Reporting by Joanna Plucinska and Anna Wlodarczak-Semczuk, Editing by William Maclean

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