‘Free court’ protests spread across Poland, EU threatens sanctions

(CNN)Marching by candlelight, Poles are pouring into streets across Poland, protesting what some lament as the impending death of democracy in the country.

The protests come before a Friday vote on a bill proposed by the country’s ruling party, the Law and Justice Party or PiS, that would allow Parliament to appoint Supreme Court judges.
“We are planting an explosive under our judiciary,” said Adam Bodnar, the country’s human rights ombudsman, during the bill’s debate according to Reuters.
    The measure, one of four aimed at changing the judiciary, “would deprive citizens of the right to an independent court,” Bodnar said.
    The Polish Constitution mandates only the President can appoint Supreme Court judges and only with the opinion of the National Council of the Judiciary — a constitutional organization focused on maintaining judicial impartiality.
    However, the President signed the first of the four judiciary bills into law last week; it allows Parliament to appoint 15 of the Council’s 25 members.
    In a televised address on Thursday, Polish Prime Minister Beata Szydlo explained the PiS’ efforts for what they say is judicial reform.
    “We know the courts are performing badly. That’s why we are answering the expectations of the Polish people, who want them to perform well and fairly,” said the Prime Minister, according to state media. “Today, this is not the case.”
    The country does have mechanisms to ensure the Constitution is being followed.
    However, shortly after coming to power in 2015, the PiS stacked the Constitutional Tribunal with loyalists, ensuring its support for all party initiatives.
    While holding power, the populist, right-wing PiS has eroded other institutions and freedoms within Poland: the right to peacefully assemble has become more restricted and the new media laws have made it more difficult for media companies to operate independently.
    Poland plummeted down 29 ranking spots in 2016’s World Press Freedom Index to 47. In 2016, they dropped seven more.
    The European Union is monitoring the situation very closely. In a speech on Wednesday, first vice-president Frans Timmermans threatened use of EU Charter’s Article 7.
    Created to address potential human rights abuses within the bloc, it’s never been used before; it would allow for sanctions against Poland and possible suspension of their voting rights in the bloc.


    As word spread of Friday’s final vote on the proposed Supreme Court bill, protests sprung up around cities across Poland.
    In Warsaw, Andrzej Tomasz Celinski was supposed to spend his Thursday evening in a hospital; his one-month old son is sick. He spent it instead marching with candlelight in hand for his son.
    “I hope that when he will grow up that he will not have to go to demonstrations like this,” he told CNN. “So I’ll tell him that when he was in hospital, I went for a demonstration also to fight for his future.”
    The protests are resonating loudly across social media as Poles use the hashtag, #wolnesdy or “free courts.”
    On the streets of Warsaw, Mateusz Fusiarz captured a powerful moment outside the Presidential Palace — the singing of the national anthem.

    Poland 20.07.2017 #parlament #Poland #warszawa #warsaw #in #facebook #insta #instagram #capitol #i #information

    A post shared by Mateusz Fusiarz (@matt_onthe_road) on

    As Fusiarz pans the camera as the anthem builds to its conclusion; thousands of candles shine against the dark sky, giving the buildings an even softer glow from the surrounding streetlights.
    Journalist Jakub Grnicki couldn’t find the words in English to describe what he felt at the protests Thursday night. “Podniosla” is the word in Polish.
    “It was a nice atmosphere, but in a ceremonial way,” he said. “I was very gentle … this was a protest for values. People had a feeling that there was something bigger happening here.”
    Candles across Poland flickered brightly during these protests; some online giving the demonstrations the moniker, #CandlelightRevolution.
    “It’s a light of objection,” Wroclaw-protester Tymoteusz Matusiak told CNN. “When somebody dies, you bring a light to the cemetery. This law means the death of independent judiciary.”
    Chants of “Wroclaw walczy (Wroclaw is fighting),” echoed off buildings in the city’s Market Square as Matusiak and others shouted.
    The protests start in front of the Court and move toward the square.
    Poznan saw its buildings illuminated by candlelight on Thursday. Joanna Przystaska is scared for what may happen next.
    “At first, our government destroyed the constitutional court and now they destroyed the Supreme Court so it will be dependent on the government,” she said. “It’s against [the] constitution and democracy.”

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