By Agence France-Presse
Poland’s disputed top judge showed up at work on Wednesday in defiance of a controversial retirement law that the EU has criticised as a threat to the country’s judicial independence.
Chanting “Free courts!”, “Constitution!” and “Irremovable!” several thousand supporters greeted Supreme Court chief justice Malgorzata Gersdorf as she made her way into the Supreme Court building in central Warsaw.
Gersdorf, 65, has refused to comply with the law change, pushed through by the right-wing government, and insisted she can serve a full six-year term despite being told to step down at midnight on Tuesday.
She has branded the court changes — which has put Poland’s Law and Justice (PiS) government at loggerheads with Brussels — a “purge”.
“I’m not engaging in politics. I’m doing this to defend the rule of law and to testify the truth about the line between the constitution and the violation of the constitution,” Gersdorf told journalists and supporters outside the court.
“I hope that legal order will return to Poland,” she said.
Poland’s anti-communist freedom icon Lech Walesa arrived from Gdansk, northern Poland, to join protesters at the Supreme Court on Wednesday evening.
Walesa, who negotiated a peaceful end to communism in Poland in 1989, told protesters that the current government was “violating the constitution.”
“If these protest continue, I will come to join you now and then,” he said.
Twenty-seven of the court’s 73 judges are affected by the new law, which lowers the retirement age from 70 to 65. Justices can ask the president to prolong their terms, but he can accept or deny their requests without giving a reason.
Sixteen judges have made requests, according to Polish media reports.
‘Rape of the Supreme Court’
Poland’s government has pushed ahead with the new rules despite the European Union launching legal action on Monday.
It was the latest salvo in a bitter battle over sweeping judicial changes introduced by the PiS government that could end up in the European Court of Justice (ECJ), the bloc’s top tribunal.
“Rape of the Supreme Court,” thundered an editorial in leading liberal daily Gazeta Wyborcza.
Presidential aide Pawel Mucha insisted that Gersdorf was “going into retirement in accordance with the law” and said the court was now headed by Judge Jozef Iwulski, who was chosen by President Andrzej Duda as an interim chief justice.
The government has refused to back down despite the EU legal action, insisting the reforms are needed to tackle corruption and overhaul a judicial system still haunted by the communist era.
“Every EU country has the right to develop its judicial system according to its own traditions,” Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki told a session of the European Parliament.
Critics have warned that the judicial overhaul poses a threat to the separation of powers, a key pillar of democracy in the EU member state.
“Poland is a European country and it is imperative that its judges are completely independent — this is fundamental to guaranteeing citizens’ rights,” Draginja Nadazdin, director of Amnesty International’s Poland bureau told AFP.
“We are calling for the reform to be amended in line with the constitution and European standards.”
For a long time Gersdorf was a member of Walesa’s Solidarity trade union that was key to the toppling of communism in Poland in 1989.
‘Free and democratic’
She said after showing up for work that she plans to go on holiday from next week, and that Iwulski would be standing in for her during her absence.
“I’m not a replacement for, nor the successor of, the Supreme Court chief justice. I only fill in if she is absent,” Iwulski said, appearing to contradict the presidential aide.
The European Commission, the bloc’s powerful executive arm, said Monday that the court reforms undermine “the irremovability of judges” and judicial independence, breaching Poland’s obligations under EU law. Poland has a month to respond.
The Polish Constitutional Court also underwent controversial reforms in 2016 that critics alleged was unconstitutional and stacked it with PiS allies.
Brussels in December triggered so-called Article Seven proceedings against Poland over “systemic threats” to the rule of law, which could eventually see Warsaw’s EU voting rights suspended.
Tens of thousands of Poles have hit the streets since the PiS government came to power in 2015, protesting at its judicial reforms and attempts to tighten Poland’s already strict abortion law, among other causes.
“I would like my country to be free, democratic and to respect the separation of powers,” Warsaw resident Grazyna Kwadrans told AFP at Wednesday’s protest.