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Critics Say New Poland Law Dissolves Separation Of Judiciary And Ruling Party


Early this morning, Poland's Senate passed legislation that if signed into law would force all of that country's Supreme Court judges to step down except for those kept on by Poland's president. Critics fear the move would undermine the independence of the judiciary by giving control to the country's ruling party, known as the Law and Justice Party. NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson has been in Warsaw this week. She's back in Berlin now. Soraya, thanks so much for speaking with us.


MARTIN: So you were in Warsaw earlier this week. What did you see when you were there, and how are people reacting to this legislation?

NELSON: Well, there were definitely some of the largest protests against this government since it took office a couple of years ago. People were in front of the Parliament. They were in front of the president's office and calling for free courts. Today, actually, Lech Walesa, who has been sick recently with some heart issues, was out with protesters urging them to defend Polish democracy.

MARTIN: And remind people of who Lech Walesa is. I mean, he has tremendous moral authority, not just in Poland but around the world because...

NELSON: Lech Walesa is a Nobel laureate who was former president of Poland and also the co-founder of the Solidarity movement, the labor movement which helped bring down Communism across Eastern Europe.

MARTIN: So why would the Parliament move to pass a bill that has caused such an outpouring of protest?

NELSON: Well, Law and Justice, which is a pretty far-right populist party, they dominate the Parliament and the government. And they say that they're fulfilling campaign promises and also addressing concerns about a judiciary that many people feel is inefficient or doesn't represent the general Polish public. That is their take on it. They're completely not accepting of what the opposition in Parliament or what people on the streets are saying. They say these are the elites, and they represent average Polish people.

It's also something - it's very interesting to note that the party leader for this group, for the Law and Justice Party, claims the purge is needed to get rid of the vestiges of Communism as well. He's been the only one who has brought that up, you know, for the judiciary, but it is something that this government has been pursuing in other departments and other parts of the government in Poland.

MARTIN: I mean, what about international reaction to all of this. Has there been any?

NELSON: It's been interesting because the U.S. actually has come out - the State Department issued a statement warning Warsaw not to violate the Polish Constitution or threaten judicial independence. And the EU has been particularly upset. I mean, Poland is a member of this 28-member bloc. And they're threatening to sanction Poland under what's known as Article 7, would be the first time they'd actually impose this if they did. And it would strip Poland or could strip Poland of its right to vote.

But it's important to note Brussels has been threatening to do this sort of sanctioning against Poland for the past year because Poland has been taking other steps to try and solidify their power. At least, that's what critics are saying. They think that having, for example, the judges appointed by the populous party or its proponents is going to result in election - future elections being problematic, where you're going to end up with the party being able to control who actually wins.

MARTIN: So now the bill goes to the Polish president's desk for a signature. Is he likely to sign it?

NELSON: Well, let me just say President Andrzej Duda's nickname is Pen because he is somebody who's pretty much rubber-stamped everything that has come his way from the populist-dominated Parliament. He's a former member of the Law and Justice Party himself, although as president, he has to be independent. He did resign from the party. But it's interesting to note that his spokesman this morning said there were a couple of issues that the president has with this new bill that's coming to his desk, but he didn't elaborate on what or what he was going to do about it.

MARTIN: That's NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson. We reached her in Berlin, but she's been spending the week in Warsaw, Poland. Soraya, thank you so much for speaking with us.

NELSON: You're welcome, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson
Special correspondent Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson is based in Berlin. Her reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and read at NPR.org. From 2012 until 2018 Nelson was NPR's bureau chief in Berlin. She won the ICFJ 2017 Excellence in International Reporting Award for her work in Central and Eastern Europe, North Africa, the Middle East and Afghanistan.