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Polish Senate Backs Contested Court Reforms, Despite EU Warnings

Poland’s Senate approved controversial reforms to the country’s highest court which have triggered protests at home (pictured above) and EU warnings that they could undermine the rule of law, in a overnight session.

The bill, which changes current conditions in the Constitutional Court, was pushed through by right-wing senators who hold the majority in the upper house, in the early hours of Thursday.

To become law, it now only needs the signature of conservative President Andrzej Duda, who fanned the feud over high court when he swore four new judges onto the body this month. The low-house of parliament had adopted the measures on Tuesday.

Duda is backed by the ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS), whose 58 senators voted for the reform against 28 opposed and one abstention.

His spokesman said on Twitter Thursday that “Duda will make a decision within the deadline set by the constitution,” which is 21 days.

The spokesman made no mention of a request earlier in the day by the foreign ministry which said in a statement it has asked the so-called Venice Commission — an advisory body to the Council of Euope whose full name is the European Commission for Democracy through Law — for its opinion on the reforms.

The opposition has denounced the provisions as an attempt to interfere with the Constitutional Court’s independence. Along with critics, they accuse the PiS of seeking to take control of the court and remove important checks on government power.

Poland, eastern Europe’s powerhouse, has been plunged into a political crisis by actions of the PiS since the party won an absolute majority in October elections. Its leader, staunch conservative ex-premier Jaroslaw Kaczynski, is neither premier nor president but is widely thought to call the party’s shots.

Kaczynski has said he wanted to break up the “band of cronies” he says made up the court, accusing it of trying to block government policies notably on family benefits and retirement age.

The new law says the court must approve rulings with a two-thirds majority, rather than the present simple majority, and requires 13 of the court’s 15 judges to be present instead of the current nine for the most contentious cases.

It also introduces obligatory waiting periods of three to six months between the time a request for a ruling is made and a verdict, compared with the current two weeks.

A letter by European Commission vice president Frans Timmermans on Wednesday to Poland’s foreign and justice ministers urged the reforms not be “finally adopted or put into force” until all questions about their impact “have been fully and properly assessed.”

Poland’s Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro immediately retorted that Timmermans had “been misled” by the opposition.

The office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has likewise expressed “concern” about the reforms. They have also been blasted by former president and Nobel Peace laureate Lech Walesa — who led the Solidarity movement that helped bring an end to communism — who has called for a referendum to force early elections.

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