Europe rights body accuses Poland of threatening democracy

A pan-European rights body accused Poland's conservative government on Friday of undermining democracy in east Europe's largest economy by crippling its top court, a move that could put Poland on a collision course with the European Union.
Since sweeping to power last October, the eurosceptic Law and Justice (PiS) party has enacted a law increasing the number of judges at the constitutional court required to make rulings and changing the order in which cases are heard.
Critics say the changes have paralyzed the court's work, making it difficult for judges to review, let alone challenge, the government's legislation. The EU, which Poland joined in 2004, and the United States have also expressed concerns.
"A high attendance quorum, the requirement of two thirds majority for adopting judgements and a strict rule making it impossible to deal with urgent cases, notably in their combined effect, would have made the (constitutional court) ineffective," the rights body Council of Europe's advisory panel Venice Commission said in a statement.
"Therefore, these amendments would have endangered not only the rule of law but also the functioning of the democratic system."
The European Commission said earlier on Friday that it would review the panel's opinion in April, paving the way for potential punishment for Poland if the EU executive decides it breaches its rule of law standards.
A Polish government official said after the Venice Commission adopted its findings that Warsaw would respect its views but gave no details on what Poland would be willing to change in its top court reform, if anything.
PiS officials have been defiant so far, with PiS calling a leaked draft of the opinion "legally absurd."
"(Poland's) democracy is in very good shape - there are demonstrations, meetings, protests," a senior PiS official, Beata Kempa, told public broadcaster TVP Info.
"We're not sending in police with bullets against people, they are allowed to express their views ... The Venice Commission's opinion is not binding. We can take it into account, (but) we don't have to take it into account."
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