For­mer pres­i­dent joins Poles protest­ing court changes

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - INTERNATIONAL - MONIKA SCIS­LOWSKA AND VANESSA GERA In­for­ma­tion for this ar­ti­cle was con­trib­uted by Pablo Gorondi of The As­so­ci­ated Press.

WAR­SAW, Poland — Pol­ish democ­racy icon and for­mer Pres­i­dent Lech Walesa on Satur­day joined the protests that have bro­ken out across Poland over plans by the pop­ulist rul­ing party to put the Supreme Court and the rest of the ju­di­cial sys­tem un­der the party’s po­lit­i­cal con­trol.

The Euro­pean Union and many in­ter­na­tional le­gal ex­perts say the changes would mark a dra­matic re­ver­sal for a coun­try hailed as a model of demo­cratic tran­si­tion over the past quar­ter cen­tury, and move Poland closer to au­thor­i­tar­i­an­ism.

The rul­ing Law and Jus­tice party de­fends the changes as over­hauls of a jus­tice sys­tem that party leader Jaroslaw Kaczyn­ski says was never prop­erly purged of for­mer com­mu­nists af­ter that po­lit­i­cal sys­tem col­lapsed in 1989.

Walesa ad­dressed pro­test­ers in Gdansk, his home city, where he led strikes in the 1980s against the then-com­mu­nist regime that even­tu­ally top­pled the gov­ern­ment and ush­ered in democ­racy.

The 73-year-old Walesa re­called those demo­cratic changes, say­ing that the sep­a­ra­tion of pow­ers into the leg­isla­tive, ex­ec­u­tive and ju­di­cial branches was the most im­por­tant achieve­ment of his Sol­i­dar­ity move­ment.

“You must use all means to take back what we achieved for you,” he told a crowd that in­cluded young Poles. The 1983 No­bel Peace Prize win­ner also said he would al­ways sup­port their strug­gle, words that ap­peared to rule out any lead­er­ship role for him in the protests.

Later Satur­day night, crowds of thou­sands be­gan to form in War­saw, Krakow and other Pol­ish cities. Some peo­ple held up plac­ards with the word “Con­sti­tu­tion” — a ref­er­ence to ac­cu­sa­tions the gov­ern­ing party is de­stroy­ing Poland’s con­sti­tu­tional or­der.

In War­saw, 29-year-old lawyer Marzena Wo­jtczak dis­puted the rul­ing party’s claim that the ju­di­cial sys­tem is filled with for­mer com­mu­nists, say­ing many judges were anti-com­mu­nist dis­si­dents and oth­ers are too young for that era.

An­other pro­tester, Tadeusz Przy­byl­ski, 61, said he op­posed the com­mu­nists decades ago and was back be­cause the rul­ing party’s moves to con­trol the ju­di­ciary have led to a “lack of democ­racy and jus­tice.”

Three bills changing the rules for the Supreme Court and other ju­di­cial bod­ies have been ap­proved by Pol­ish law­mak­ers, but they must still be signed into law by Pres­i­dent An­drzej Duda. The pro­test­ers, bear­ing signs read­ing “3 X veto,” urged him to block the leg­is­la­tion.

The Supreme Court has, among other pow­ers, ju­ris­dic­tion over the va­lid­ity of elec­tions. Gov­ern­ment crit­ics fear the rul­ing party could abuse its new power and fal­sify fu­ture elec­tions.

, To­masz Lis, edi­tor-in-chief of Newsweek Pol­ska and an out­spo­ken gov­ern­ment critic, said on Twit­ter that it was the “worst and the best mo­ment in time for Poland since 1989. A great na­tion is de­fend­ing democ­racy and its own free­dom. Bravo.”

Af­ter the pop­ulist Law and Jus­tice party won power in 2015, it took on the coun­try’s sys­tem of checks and bal­ances as it sought to ce­ment its power, of­ten pass­ing con­tentious laws in the mid­dle of the night and with­out any pub­lic con­sul­ta­tion. Those steps have led to re­peated street demon­stra­tions.

The party has turned pub­lic me­dia into a party mouth­piece and purged the army of most of its lead­er­ship. Most dra­mat­i­cally, many crit­ics say, it has al­ready neu­tral­ized the power of the Con­sti­tu­tional Tri­bunal to block any new leg­is­la­tion that might vi­o­late the con­sti­tu­tion.

On Satur­day, pres­i­den­tial spokesman Krzysztof Lap­in­ski said Duda sees some flaws in the leg­is­la­tion on the Supreme Court. But he stopped short of say­ing whether the pres­i­dent would re­ject the bill or seek the opin­ion of the Con­sti­tu­tional Tri­bunal. Duda has 21 days to sign the bill into law.

AP/ALIK KEPLICZ

Anti-gov­ern­ment pro­test­ers raise can­dles and wave flags Satur­day as they gather in front of the Supreme Court in War­saw, Poland.

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