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Polish gov't defends law to 'discipline' judges, amid outcry

WARSAW – Poland's right-wing governing party on Friday defended its heavily-criticized plans to impose new restrictions on judges, saying it wants to "discipline" a “caste” of judges that has become too engaged in politics.

Critics say the draft legislation marks a repressive step that flouts the European Union and its values.

The proposed law introduced in the Polish parliament late Thursday is the latest move in the four-year effort by the populist Law and Justice party to gain control of the country's judiciary.

It would allow disciplinary measures against judges who criticize the Law and Justice government's judicial overhaul. One provision would make judges eligible for dismissal if they attempt to scrutinize the credentials of a fellow jurist, in line with a ruling by the European Court of Justice.

The Polish parliament's press office said it was not clear when the draft legislation would be debated or be put to a vote. President Andrzej Duda has defended the measure, indicating he would not veto it.

Ryszard Terlecki, the head of the Law and Justice parliamentary caucus, insisted Friday that the law was not repressive but similar to legislation in countries like France.

“We must discipline this special caste, and this project is very mild, very delicate,” he said.

His view was not widely shared, with opponents saying it marks a setback for Poland's 30-year-old democracy.

One critical judge, Igor Tuleya, said the aim was to pressure judges to issue rulings that satisfy the government and vowed that judges would not allow themselves to be intimidated.

Wojciech Hermelinski, a former Constitutional Tribunal justice, said the law would introduce “terror” among judges.

International human rights groups and scholars also voiced deep concern.

“We have now reached the unprecedented and frightening stage where Polish judges are being subject to harassment tactics,” said an open letter signed by groups including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch as well as individual legal experts from across Europe.

“The attacks on judicial independence we are witnessing in Poland are unprecedented in the history of the EU, and legal chaos is bound to ensue and spread,” the letter said.

Public broadcaster TVP, which is government controlled, echoed the party line, with TV headlines that included: “Judges want anarchy,” and “Caste of judges fighting for its privileges.”

Some critics described the legislation as a new form of martial law. Friday was the anniversary of the declaration of martial law by Poland's communist regime in 1981.

The introduction of the legislation comes after judges became outspoken in their criticism of the ruling party's judicial changes, some taking part in street protests.

One new provision would require judges to declare what associations they are affiliated with and all names and nicknames under which they appear online.

Disciplinary measures can include being stripped of the right to work as a judge, transfer to other workplaces and financial penalties.

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Monika Scislowska in Warsaw contributed.