Poland sees CoE commissioner's letter as legislative interference

Szynkowski vel Sęk told a press conference that Mijatovic did not wait for the conclusion of the visit and the Venice Commission's ultimate opinion, and instead expressed a clear expectation addressed to the Senate speaker that the bill should be rejected in its entirety. Paweł Supernak/PAP

The letter from Dunja Mijatovic, the Council of Europe's human rights commissioner, in which she tells the Polish Senate speaker that the Senate should reject the latest judiciary bill, is interference with Polish legislation, a deputy minister has said.

Deputy Foreign Minister Szymon Szynkowski vel Sęk was referring to Mijatovic's letter that the Foreign Ministry received on Thursday, and in which the human rights commissioner presented a negative assessment of a bill passed on December 20 by the Sejm, the lower house of parliament, that introduces disciplinary measures on judges and reforms the Supreme Court once again.

The ruling party, the conservative Law and Justice (PiS), holds an absolute majority in the Sejm, but not in the Senate.

The Council of Europe has announced it will publish Mijatovic's letter addressed to Senate Speaker Tomasz Grodzki on Monday.

The Foreign Ministry said on Friday it would pass the letter on to Grodzki later in the day, and also decided to make it available to the public on the same day.

Grodzki had asked the Venice Commission, the Council of Europe's legal advisory body, to issue an opinion on the legislation before the Senate holds a vote on it, which must take place no later than 30 days since the bill was passed. The Commission decided to come to Poland for a two-day visit, on Thursday and Friday, to learn more about the bill from various stakeholders.

Szynkowski vel Sęk told a press conference that Mijatovic did not wait for the conclusion of the visit and the Venice Commission's ultimate opinion, and instead expressed a clear expectation addressed to the Senate speaker that the bill should be rejected in its entirety.

In the context of this letter, "a question should be asked whether the Venice Commission's activities are not a pretence, and whether in fact the opinion that it is going to issue has not been prepared beforehand," Szynkowski vel Sęk said.

"At the same time, such a clearly articulated expectation towards the Senate speaker that his house should reject the bill in its entirety constitutes an unprecedented interference in the Polish legislative process and violates the principles of the decision-making sovereignty of the Polish parliament in the area of legislative work. The government expects that the Senate will make a decision on the matter with full independence," the deputy minister said.

In her letter, Mijatovic says that the legislation is problematic in view of the Council of Europe's standards as it seems to increase the already broad authority of the government over the judiciary through harsher disciplinary measures against judges and prosecutors, crippling judiciary self-governance and curbing judges' and prosecutors' freedom of speech.

The commissioner also expresses concern that a number of the disciplinary measures were intentionally vague, offering room for arbitrary interpretation and abuse. Additionally, she criticised the rapid pace of the legislative procedure in the Sejm.

The legislation has also drawn criticism from the European Commission (EC) and may exacerbate Warsaw's ongoing conflict with Brussels over Poland's judiciary reforms that the EC says infringe upon the rule of law principles that Poland had agreed to observe when joining the EU.

Warsaw argues similar measures are in place in other EU member states and accuses Brussels of unfair treatment.