Judges from across Europe marched through the heart of Warsaw on Saturday as part of a protest against the mounting pressure on the independence of their Polish counterparts.
Since coming to power in 2015, Poland’s Law and Justice party has pushed through changes giving politicians sweeping powers over the judiciary, sparking protests in Poland and triggering a bitter feud between Warsaw and Brussels.
After winning re-election in October, Law and Justice unveiled a further batch of changes that would allow judges to be disciplined for questioning its reforms. Law and Justice says that its changes will help make the system more efficient, but critics see them as a serious threat to the rule of law in the EU’s sixth-biggest member state.
The judges from about 20 European countries were joined by several thousand Polish protesters, who applauded the international judges as their presence was announced, and marched with them from the Supreme Court to the Sejm, Poland’s lower house of parliament. Warsaw’s city hall said 15,000 people had taken part.
Addressing the demonstrators in front of the Sejm, Krystian Markiewicz, head of the Polish judges’ association Iustitia, said that the changes proposed by Law and Justice would make Poles “dependent on the whims of politicians”.
“It must be stated clearly, they will be able to influence sentences in such a way that members of their own party will not be harmed, while political opponents will face severe punishment. We do not consent to such misuse of legal proceedings,” he said.
European judges who took part in the march said that they were reluctant to get involved in politics, but that they felt compelled to attend out of solidarity with their Polish peers, and because the situation in Poland had implications for the entire EU.
“15 years ago I would have never thought that I would be here in this wonderful country in this situation . . . [But] it’s like the annihilation of judicial independence, which is . . . one of the most substantial values for democracy,” said Jose Ingreja Matos, a Portuguese judge who heads the European Association of Judges.
“This is not a political issue, this is European values that are at stake . . . It is very important that the Polish government, Polish authorities reconsider this kind of situation and abide by the basic principles of democracy. If nothing happens, I think it’s time for the European Commission to ask for interim measures, at least to stop this law until the decision from the European Court will be taken.”
John MacMenamin, an Irish Supreme Court judge, said he was particularly concerned about the Polish government’s new proposals for disciplining judges, as well as its campaign to discredit them in the eyes of the public.
“Without independent judges there can be no rule of law. The rule of law is something that belongs to all citizens,” he said. “But the EU depends on the existence of the fabric of the law. Without the fabric of the law that applies across Europe the integrity of the EU can be threatened and undermined.”
Yavuz Aydin, one of more than 4,000 judges and prosecutors who were purged from the Turkish judiciary after a violent attempted coup in 2016, said that he was taking part in the march to warn Poles about the consequences of subjugating judges to political masters.
“Thousands of colleagues of mine are being persecuted in jail or outside jail in Turkey. But they have no right to say anything . . . Everything they have has been destroyed,” said Mr Aydin, who now lives in exile.
“I’m here to express the suffering of my people, and to warn [Poles]: I know what comes next . . . I’ve seen this movie. I know the end.”
Additional reporting by Laura Pitel in Istanbul