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World News \ Europe

Venice Commission Says Poland's Court Measures "Undermine Democracy"

Polish protestors march in opposition to the government's reforms of the constitutional court, March 10. - AFP

Polish protestors march in opposition to the government's reforms of the constitutional court, March 10. - AFP

12/03/2016 09:50

(Vatican Radio) An international human rights body has warned that if Poland's recently elected government continues with moves that it claims "crippled" the country's constitutional court, it will "undermine democracy, human rights and the rule of law."

Listen to the report by Stefan Bos:

The Venice Commission, an expert body with the Council of Europe human rights body, released its assessment Friday after studying measures by Poland's new government that have limited the power of the country's top legislative court.

In its long awaited report the Venice Commission expressed concern over "the situation of constitutional crisis related to the Constitutional Tribunal", as the constitutional court is known.

The Commission said that as long as the crisis remains unsettled and as long as the Constitutional Tribunal cannot carry out its work in an efficient manner" it would, in its own words, "not only endanger the rule of law, but also democracy and human rights.

SOFTER REPORT

Yet analysts said that the report appeared softer than that in a leaked draft document last month and appeared intended to create space for Prime Minister Beata Szydlo's right wing government to roll back the controversial amendments.

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

Under the new measures passed in December the court is required to 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.

Additionally a contested change demands a quorum of 13 judges for rulings to be valid.

PARALYZED COURT

Critics say 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 the rule of Law and Justice passes.

The crisis deepened this week after the tribunal ruled that the changes to its own functioning are unconstitutional. However the government has not accepted that ruling, explained Poland’s Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro.

He told reporters that "these actions which we observed in the Constitutional Court were actions of a group of judges who did not act on the basis of law and within the law, so they acted unlawfully. Their ruling has no legal force, it is not binding.”

WIDER CONCERN

Various other government measures have caused concern both within Poland and abroad, especially a law reducing the independence of media, which gives the government more influence over public broadcasters. More anti-government protests are expected.   

The European Union and United States are worried about what they view as democratic backsliding in the largest eastern EU member.

Though the Venice Commission's opinion is not binding, it was expected to influence an EU probe in the rule of law. Some EU officials have compared the situation in Poland with Hungary, where the prime minister has come under pressure over perceived attempts to influence the judiciary, media, central bank and even churches.
 

12/03/2016 09:50