poljska zastava.jpg
Photograph: Photo by Lukas Plewnia, used under CC BY-SA

Experts for Europe's leading human rights watchdog said Friday that legal reforms undertaken by Poland that weaken its top court, if upheld, "would undermine democracy, human rights and the rule of law."

The Venice Commission, a body of constitutional law experts that is part of the 47-member Council of Europe, adopted the opinion lambasting Poland's recent amendments to the laws governing its Constitutional Tribunal.

The move underscored deepening tensions about a series of measures taken by Warsaw that have raised concern in Europe.

In January, the European Commission launched an inquiry into whether recent changes in Polish law clash with EU values. While the Venice Commission report is not binding, it comes at a critical moment for European investigators.

Polish judges ruled this week that several parts of a controversial law planned to reform the court are unconstitutional, including: a requirement for a two-thirds majority for rulings; a minimal requirement of 13 justices for ruling to take effect; and a rule requiring the court to take cases in the order in which they were filed.

But the Polish government, which included the reforms as part of its 2015 campaign platform of "repairing" damage wreaked by the former government, has not published the judges' verdict. Publication is necessary to make the verdict valid.

Demonstrators in Warsaw camped this week for two nights outside the office of Prime Minister Beata Szydlo, demanding that the verdict be published. There is also a demonstration planned in front of the tribunal tomorrow.

Responding to the government's refusal to publish the verdict, the Venice Commission said, "such an unprecedented move would further deepen the constitutional crisis in Poland."

In its opinion, the commission said the changes would, "seriously hamper the effectiveness of the Constitutional Tribunal by rendering decision-making extremely difficult and slowing down the proceedings of the tribunal. This will make the tribunal ineffective as a guarantor of the Constitution."

Poland's conservative government, which took office in November, has been at loggerheads ever since with the country's liberals, as well as with the European Union. Concerns about the independence of the courts and the media have also prompted US politicians to raise alarm about Poland's moves.

A spokesman for the European Commission said the commission will review the issue on the basis of discussions with Warsaw, but not before the end of March. Council of Europe Secretary General Thorbjorn Jagland also said he would pursue dialogue with Warsaw.

"The opinion of the Venice Commission gives us a basis to enter into a dialogue with Poland which I will pursue when I visit Warsaw at the beginning of April," Jagland said in the statement.

Polish Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski brushed off the Venice Commission's adoption, saying during a press conference in Warsaw that the commission is "giving an opinion, not passing a verdict."

"This is not the end of the world," he added.

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