Warsaw, Poland – As Poles across the country took to the streets on Monday against a new law they see as threatening judicial independence, they were taking a stand against the government in one of the few ways they still can.
Critics say that since taking power in 2015, the Law and Justice party (PiS), led by Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki and party chairman Jaroslaw Kaczynski, has chipped away at citizens’ fundamental rights to consolidate its power – tearing down democratic institutions that have been in place since the collapse of communism in 1989.
Rights groups claim PiS has moved to silence the media, employed xenophobic rhetoric to isolate political opponents, fast-tracked appointments of party-affiliated judges and dismantled the Constitutional Tribunal.
Now, a new law that will come into effect on Tuesday is targeting the country’s highest court – the Supreme Court – by forcing 40 percent of its judges into early retirement.
Many consider it the most flagrant attempt to control the country’s judiciary and an unwelcome turning point for the country’s waning democracy.
“It’s a question of to be or not to be for Poland as a liberal democracy founded on the rule of law,” said Piotr Kwiatkowski, one of the organisers for Monday evening’s protest in Gizycko, a town 275 kilometres north of Warsaw. “The Supreme Court is yet another victim of the Law and Justice party in a long string of assaults on democracy that began the very first night when the newly-elected parliament was summoned.”
Kwiatkowski, an environmental specialist, helped organise the rallies in his hometown to motivate Poles to fight against what he considers an illegal power grab.
“After almost three years of banging their heads against the wall and watching in disbelief the pace at which democracy is being dismantled in Poland, many people seem to have given up,” he told Al Jazeera. “The point is, however, not to give up, and not to let the people get used to things, as if what they have done to our country was something normal.”
From the outset of its rule, the right-wing PiS party sought to reform Poland’s state media.
In January, 2016 President Andrzej Duda signed a law enabling the government to appoint the heads of public media and civil service institutions, drawing sharp criticism from European media watchdogs and the EU Commission.
Independent media outlets, meanwhile, have been subject to hefty fines for their reporting and journalists have been threatened with imprisonment.
As a result, Poland’s ranking on Reporters Without Borders’ annual Press Freedom Index has plummeted from 18th in 2015 to 54th out of 180 countries this year.
Protesters threatened with violence, group says
In 2016, Beata Szydlo, then prime minister, dissolved Poland’s anti-discrimination council that was tasked with preventing xenophobia and intolerance and the interior ministry’s human rights protection team.
“People there are increasingly feeling like there is a very polarised society and if you are not in you are out,” said Melissa Hooper, a Poland expert at Washington, DC-based NGO Human Rights First.
More recently, parliament considered an education reform bill that would establish university councils that some worry would politicise the curriculum.
to change the judges … and right now what we are seeing really is a revolution. We are at the verge of autocracy.”]
Amid the crackdown, demonstrations are frequent.
Crowds of up to hundreds of thousands turn up to protest against growing nationalism and restrictions to human rights.
But according to a report by Amnesty International last week, protests are under increased police surveillance and participants now also face the threat of violence.
“[Protesting] requires not only determination and time, but also the phone number of a lawyer and the willingness to face the consequences, which range from harassment, verbal and physical assault, and police custody to the laying of fines or the application of criminal charges,” the report said. “Those who participate in protests in Poland are frequently threatened with detention and prosecution, if not outright violence at the hands of police or security officers.”
‘The situation is absolutely critical’
Among those protesting the Supreme Court reform is Dariusz Mazur, a judge of a regional court in Krakow who presided over the extradition case against Oscar-winning director Roman Polanski in 2015. He is also the spokesman for a local association of about 200 judges.
Mazur told Al Jazeera that Polish judges have continually warned of the PiS politicising the judiciary after a state-led “fair courts” drive, which began last year.
Featuring billboard adverts across the country targeting local judges, the campaign draws claims of state-sponsored harassment and intimidation.
In addition to giving President Duda the power to fill the soon-to-be vacant chairs in the Supreme Court, the forthcoming law would create an “extraordinary appeal” chamber within the court that could reopen cases dating back 20 years at the request of a government-appointed prosecutor-general who doubles over as the justice minister.
“The situation is absolutely critical,” Mazur said. “Of course, we still have independent-minded judges, but the institutional upholding of our independence is almost completely destroyed.”
Al Jazeera contacted the office and spokesman of Prime Minister Morawiecki several days ago, but did not receive a response by time of publishing.
For its part, the government has long claimed it is fixing long-standing problems in a country that has been wrought with corruption since the early days of the post-communist democratic transition.
“There cannot be any talk about reaching an agreement with powers that for years treated Poland as their own private loot,” PiS chairman Kaczynski told local media earlier this year.
The EU Commission views the judicial overhaul differently, calling it a systematic threat to the country’s rule of law.
In December, it launched a sanctions procedure under Article 7 of the Treaty of the European Union, one of the two EU-founding documents – an unprecedented move.
On June 26, Poland defended its judicial reform to fellow EU countries this week during a three-hour hearing at the EU General Affairs Council with Poland’s EU affairs minister Konrad Szymanski calling the bloc’s objections “misleading” and containing “factual mistakes”.
“Let me be very clear: The systemic threat for the rule-of-law persists,” said Commission first vice President Frans Timmermans.
Escalating the situation further, it was reported days later that the European Commission would open a legal case against Poland to challenge the law, though when asked by Al Jazeera the Commission’s spokesman, Christian Wigand, disregarded the report as “rumour”.
“The Commission is ready to pursue the dialogue and continue to work with Poland to find ways forward,” he said.
With the Article 7 infringement proceedings ongoing and no clear outcome yet apparent, observers are concerned the EU is not doing enough to push back against countries such as Hungary or Poland that continue to challenge the values the union was founded upon.
“It might already be too late,” said Zselyke Csaky, a senior Central and Eastern Europe researcher with Washington, DC-based rights organisation Freedom House. “If the judges have to retire on July 3, it will resemble the situation in Hungary.
“Though there is an infringement case against Hungary, it took two years. By then, most of the judges have gone on to different things, so there is a danger in that.”
As the EU is accused of acting too slowly, the stakes are getting higher for the Polish protesters.
“[The government wants] to change the judges … and right now what we are seeing really is a revolution,” said Mazur. “We are on the verge of autocracy.”