Poland's president signs controversial law despite protests

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[Andrzej Duda promised to veto two bills seen as limiting judicial independence but has now signed a third. See also: Why suspicion remains over Polish president's veto of contentious laws. Their are fears that he is simply slowing the process down to sneak it past the public. *RON*]

Kate Connolly, The Guardian, 25 July 2017

Protesters in Kraków on Monday night urged the president not to sign the third law. Photograph: Artur Widak/ddp USA/Rex/Shutterstock
Poland’s president has signed into law one of three contested bills that organises the judiciary in a way that critics say limits their independence.

President Andrzej Duda announced on Monday after days of protests that he would veto two of the bills.

On Tuesday, his office said he had signed the third bill, despite demonstrations late on Monday in several cities urging him to also block that one.

The law allows the justice minister, who is also the prosecutor general, to name the heads of all lower courts.

Critics say it is unconstitutional, but welcomed the president’s rejection of the other bills. One of them would have allowed the justice minister to immediately fire all supreme court justices and choose their replacements.

Duda said the law on the supreme court gave excessive powers to the prosecutor general.

Commentators were shocked at the move, interpreting it as a major setback for the ruling Law and Justice party (PiS), which has made a big issue out of controlling Poland’s independent institutions, particularly the judiciary, since it came into power in 2015, and hailing it as a victory for demonstrators.

Duda, in a televised address, said: “These laws must be amended.” He said his rejection of the proposed bills would be criticised “probably by both sides of the political scene”, but that they “would not strengthen the sense of justice in society”.

His declaration followed eight days of demonstrations across the country, in which hundreds of thousands of Poles have taken to the streets in the capital, Warsaw, as well as other towns and cities, and held vigils in front of courthouses.

Under banners emblazoned with slogans such as “Free courts” and “Freedom, equality, democracy”, demonstrators pleaded with Duda – himself a lawyer – to reject the laws, claiming they marked a shift towards authoritarian rule.

The proposals had also set Poland on a collision course with the European commission, which had threatened to stop Poland’s voting rights if it introduced them. Donald Tusk, the European council president and a former Polish prime minister, had warned of a “black scenario that could ultimately lead to the marginalisation of Poland in Europe”.

Duda’s declaration marks the first time that he has publicly split with Jarosław Kaczyński, head of the Law and Justice party, since Duda won the presidency on the party’s ticket in 2015 and the party won parliamentary elections later that same year.

Until this week, Duda had loyally accepted all of the party’s programme, even other steps denounced by the EU and human rights organisations as attacks on the democratic system of checks and balances.

The party says its programme is aimed at removing corrupt officials from state positions.

Some commentators are sceptical whether Duda’s apparent assertion of his authority on the other two bills was authentic, or merely an attempt to take the edge off the protests.

Associated Press contributed to this report

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