Polish judges detail rule of law backsliding in new documentary

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Polish judges Joanna Hetnarowicz-Sikora and Igor Tuleya in Brussels for a special screening of the documentary 'Judges under Pressure'.

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With Poland in the spotlight for its warm welcome of refugees, the years-long conflict between Warsaw and Brussels over rule of law seems to be on hold but some Polish judges are making sure it’s not forgotten.

Igor Tuleya lost his job as a judge after the Polish parliament passed a series of bills to reform the justice system starting in 2017.

“My emotions were very bad, as I have been doing my job for 25 years and now I cannot do the thing I love,” he said after a special screening of the “Judges Under Pressure” documentary in Brussels.

Tuleya, seen as an enemy of the state, is one of the protagonists of the documentary and now tours the country engaging with people.

Poland’s ruling conservative Law and Justice party (PiS) has over the years packed the country’s Constitutional Court with loyalists and introduced a disciplinary chamber for judges which opened the door to punitive actions against judges based on their rulings.

Brussels has accused Warsaw of backsliding on rule of law and of violating other key “EU values”, with the government regularly attacking the LGBTQ+ community and imposing a near-total ban on abortion.

The two have been fighting this in various courtrooms with the European Court of Justice, issuing emergency injunctions calling on Warsaw to dismantle the disciplinary chamber only for Poland’s Constitutional Court to rule that Polish law overrides EU law and that such injunctions therefore do not have to be followed.

This contravenes EU treaties that state that EU law is superior and member states cannot pass national laws that contradict EU law. This, in turn, has stoked fears of a “Polexit”.

‘No separation of powers anymore’

For Waldemar Zurek, another one of the judges featured in the documentary, “Poland is on the verge of an authoritarian regime as when you don’t have courts, you don’t have separation of powers anymore.”

“This is a threat not just to Polish, but any citizens of EU who want to come to Poland,” he added.

Last October, Poland was fined €1 million per day for not complying with an EU court order to suspend the country’s disciplinary mechanism.

Yet, for these judges, EU action is often too little too late.

“We have been disappointed for many months, because any decisions that take place take too long. Because we are struggling to survive – Polish lawyers, Polish judges, Polish citizens and the Commission is still analysing papers,” Dorota Zabludowska, from the Board of Polish judge’s association, told Euronews.

But discontent with EU action is not restricted to Poland.

“Poland is the European Union and Poland is us and when you see people, in this case, fighting for the rule of law, fighting for democracy, fighting for European values, I believe it is the role of capital of Europe, of the Brussels capital region to defend them and give them a voice,” said Pascal Smet, the Brussels capital region’s state secretary of culture and European relations.

Smet, a lawyer by trade, brought the Polish judges to the Belgian capital for the screening.

The European Parliament also thinks the bloc should do more. Last week, it backed a resolution to block funds for rule of law violators like Poland using a new “conditionality” mechanism.

But with the war in Ukraine, and the EU 27 more in need of unity than ever, it is likely the EU will keep stum.

Since Russia started its assault on Ukraine on 24 February, more than 2.8 million Ukrainian refugees — primarily women and children — have fled the country.

Neighbouring countries have borne the brunt of the arrivals with Poland so far welcoming more than 1.7 million refugees, gathering praise from its fellow EU member states as well as NATO allies including the US.

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