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Polish government defies Brussels with attack on judges

Poland faces financial penalties and the loss of voting rights over Supreme Court stand-off

Polish pro-democracy campaigner Lech Walesa addresses protestors in Warsaw. AP
Polish pro-democracy campaigner Lech Walesa addresses protestors in Warsaw. AP

Poland is defying threats of legal action by the European Union as the Warsaw government refuses to abandon efforts to clear out the country's highest court, including the enforced retirement of its president.

The justice minister insisted Thursday that Supreme Court chief justice Malgorzata Gersdorf had retired under a law that she has rejected as unconstitutional.

The EU has criticised the measure as a threat to judicial independence and is set to impose penalties on Poland in retaliation.

Mrs Gersdorf, 65, refused to comply with the law that brings down the retirement age for Supreme Court judges from 70 to 65. She insists that Article 183.3 of the constitution sets her term at six years, overriding the new law.

Mrs Gersdorf was working at the Supreme Court on Thursday, a court spokeswoman said. Demonstrators had vowed to protect her at the court premises on Wednesday, the day the law took effect, but the government failure to act against her.

Zbigniew Ziobro, justice minister in the right-wing government, said age-limit legislation voids the six-year term guarantee made on appointment.

"The Constitution clearly states that whether someone is going into retirement or not is decided by common law," Mr Ziobro said. "Under the constitution, Mrs. Gersdorf has retired because she exceeded the age limit of 65."

Campaigners said the chief justice's defiance had rattled the Warsaw government.

“We drew the world’s attention to the attempted constitutional coup,” said Bartlomiej Przymusinski, a leader of Iustitia, the independent professional association of judges in Poland that organised protests. “We supported Gersdorf. The next step will be a legal complaint to the European Court of Justice. And we’re ready to come back and protest at the court at any time.”

Poland's ruling Law & Justice party said its move is designed to modernise a court system that has been untouched since the fall of the Communist system in the last century. But the move, which has hallmarks of similar overhauls by authoritarian governments in other post-Communist states, concentrates power in the executive.

Billions of euros in aid transfers to Poland are now in jeopardy. The European Commission is determined to discipline Poland for failing to uphold democratic values, an unprecedented process that could strip the country of its voting rights in EU organizations.

The new law introduced a retirement age of 65 and would require as many as 27 of the 73 justices to leave their jobs. The law allows justices to petition the president to stay beyond that time, and at least 16 of them have done so. But Gersdorf refused to recognise the change and has vowed to keep working until her term ends.

“From their point of view, the demonstrators have reached their goal, as the Chief Justice wasn’t dismissed,” said Anna Materska-Sosnowska, a political scientist at Warsaw University. “The situation seems to be under control for the time-being, so the protests are on hold.”

President Andrzej Duda considers Gersdorf officially retired and named Jozef Iwulski as her interim successor.

Lech Walesa, the hero of the anti-Communist movement and Nobel Peace Prize winner, participated in the street protests in Warsaw. "Anyone who opposes the separation of powers is a criminal,” Mr Walesa told the crowds. “We must hold these people accountable because they’re acting against Poland’s interests.”

Updated: July 5, 2018 06:11 PM