With their robes wrapped tightly around them against the bitter winter chill, and bearing Polish and EU flags, judges from across Europe assembled in Warsaw today to participate in a silent march in protest against the Polish government’s judicial reforms.
Dubbed the "March of a Thousand Robes," the protest had been organized by Iustitia Polish Judges Association, the largest association of judges in Poland, and began at 3 p.m. Polish time outside the Supreme Court, before marching through the center of Warsaw toward the Sejm, Poland’s Lower House.
The march followed the December passing of a controversial law by the Sejm, which allows severe disciplinary measures against judges who question the judicial reforms proposed by ruling party Law and Justice (PiS). In response, Poland’s Supreme Court suggested that PiS’s measures might, in the long run, result in Poland having to leave the EU.
Since PiS first came into power in 2015, new legislation has been introduced to reform the judicial system, with measures including attempts to force the retirement of Supreme Court judges and the politicisation of judicial appointments. PiS argue these measures are necessary to overhaul the judicial system and tackle corruption.
But the reforms have faced widespread criticism, including recent warnings from the President of the European Court of Justice, and claims that PiS are trying erode the rule of law in the country. A survey commissioned by Iustitia in February 2019 revealed that 57% of participants believed that the independence of courts is at risk, with only 23% considering the situation “ok”.
Co-organiser Monika Frąckowiak told Hromadske that Iustitia were “outraged” at PiS’s judicial reforms.
“The only aim of so-called reforms is to make judges loyal to politicians. For all this time nothing has been amended to make judicial proceedings more effective, transparent or shorter. The protest we organise is the first time in history when judges go out on the streets wearing robes. It is really exceptional for us.”
The January 11 march follows on from repeated protests over the last few years against the destruction of the rule of law. A rally was also held last month, when thousands took to the streets on December 18 against the same strict legislation.
In their appeal to European Lawyers to join today’s march, Iustutia emphasised the protest was apolitical, but claimed that the challenges facing judges in the last month "can be called the most difficult in the entire history of the judiciary so far after 1989."
Judges from around 20 European countries had been expected to participate in the march, including from Austria, Germany and Portugal. The Romanian Judges’ Forum Association also announced it “unconditionally” supported the action taken by Polish judges, with protests in solidarity outside the Romanian courts at midday. Frąckowiak told Hromadske:
“We even didn’t expect that so many European judges decide to come for the march. We really do appreciate it, and it only confirms that we are one European family.”
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Also supporting the march was Irish Supreme Court judge John MacMenamin, representing the Association of Judges of Ireland. However, his participation has not gone without criticism: on January 8, the Irish Times published an editorial arguing the support from MacMenamin and others "will make it difficult for the Irish judiciary to be seen as fair and disinterested in future cases that touch on the polities or activities of the Polish government."
Irish Supreme Court judge John MacMenamin, along with judges and lawyers from across Europe, takes part in a demonstration dubbed the 'March of a Thousand Togas' held to protest against amendments to the country's judicial laws, in Warsaw, Poland on January 11. Photo: EPA-EFE/TOMASZ GZELL POLAND OUT
But Amnesty also announced they “stand in solidarity” with the protestors, saying in a statement to Hromadske before the march took place:
“Amnesty International has been concerned for years about sustained efforts on the part of the Polish government to undermine the independent judiciary in the country. We have documented cases of abuse of disciplinary procedures against judges who stood in defence of their independence.
If this law passes we fear that we will see the politicization of the judiciary in Poland, which would put people’s right to a fair trial at grave risk.”
Amnesty also released a 48-page report last July called "Poland: Free Courts, Free People", which analysed the deteriorating situation based on research carried out continuously between March 2017 and May 2019. The report noted that the attacks on judicial independence were also threatening individual freedoms, saying: “In today’s Poland, some judges and prosecutors find themselves in situations where their own human rights – in particular the rights to freedom of expression, belief, association and peaceful assembly – are breached.”
On January 10, government ministers and senior PiS figures refused to meet with a visiting delegation of the Venice Commission, an independent consultative body of the Council of Europe, who were requested by opposition speaker of the Senate Tomasz Grodzki. Concerns have also been raised regarding the treatment of protesters taking part in the march, with reports that a bus of participants travelling to Warsaw was stopped for one and a half hours for the bus to be checked, and suggestions that the President of Elbląg District Court ordered all judges’ gowns to be taken away and returned on Monday, so they could not be worn for the protest.
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The controversial law in question also still faces a debate in the opposition-controlled Senate next week, when it could be redrafted or rejected.
Judges and lawyers from across Europe take part in a demonstration dubbed the 'March of a Thousand Togas' held to protest against amendments to the country's judicial laws, in Warsaw, Poland on January 11. EPA-EFE/TOMASZ GZELL POLAND OUT
But Iustitia stress that PiS reforms over the last five years have been increasingly leading the country “ruthlessly away from Western European civilization.”
In their appeal to European lawyers, they declared: “Let us do everything so that this is not the last moment when judges will be able to publicly express their protest in defense of the values they serve with their entire professional life without fear of consequences.”
/By Juliette Bretan