By VANESSA GERA and MONIKA SCISLOWSKA
WARSAW, Poland (AP) — Anti-government protesters rallied in front of the Polish Supreme Court on Wednesday in an act of solidarity with the court’s president, who is being forced to retire under a new judicial overhaul.
The protesters accused the right-wing government of violating the country’s own constitution by forcing the retirement of First President Malgorzata Gersdorf and other justices, decrying the development as a decisive step in the destruction of Poland’s constitutional democracy.
After already having taken control of common courts and the constitutional court, the ruling right-wing Law and Justice party now has captured control of the Supreme Court, the final appeals court for all civil and criminal cases, and the body that authorizes election results.
The new law, which took effect Tuesday, cuts the retirement age to 65 from 70 for Poland’s Supreme Court justices. It is forcing the chief justice and as many as one-third of the court’s 73 sitting judges to step down.
Gersdorf still showed up for work Wednesday, insisting that according to the constitution, her six-year term runs through 2020. Arriving at the Supreme Court building to applause, the 65-year-old thanked the crowd and said she was acting to protect Poland’s constitution and the rule of law.
“I want to show that the constitution and the violation of the constitution are two different things,” Gersdorf told the crowd. “I still hope that the legal order will be restored in Poland.”
The crowd chanted “Judges are not removable!” and “Constitution!” and then marched to the Presidential Palace to show their disapproval of the law co-authored by President Andrzej Duda.
European Union officials and human rights groups have expressed alarm at changes to the Polish court system, alleging the moves represent an erosion of judicial independence that violates Western standards.
The European Commission, which polices compliance with EU laws, opened an infringement procedure Monday against Poland over the Supreme Court law.
On Wednesday, Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki defended his government’s policies under tough questioning from lawmakers at the European Parliament in Strasbourg. Some accused his government of backtracking on Poland’s democratic gains, saying the new laws put the courts under political control.
“Judges are more independent now than they were in the past,” Morawiecki countered, arguing the judicial changes will better serve ordinary people.
“We don’t want to rock the European boat,” Morawiecki said. “We firmly believe that the European Union has future ahead, we only want our individual, national values to be respected.”
In a debate dedicated to Europe’s future, Morawiecki also got support from some who backed Warsaw’s arguments that an overreaching EU was meddling in a sovereign state’s internal affairs.
The government insists it is improving Poland’s justice system, saying it was inefficient and controlled by an untouchable “caste” of judges. It argues that putting judges under the control of the legislative and executive branches makes the courts answerable to voters.
Back in Warsaw, some of the thousands of protesters feared the ruling party would now use its power to falsify elections.
“This is not a democratic country governed by law anymore,” said Krzysztof Trzesniowski, a 57-year-old protester.