WARSAW – A controversial disciplinary body within Poland's Supreme Court on Thursday rejected a prosecutor's request to arrest a judge who has become a symbol of resistance for those who believe judicial independence is threatened in the country.
The Disciplinary Chamber, which was created by the populist party that governs Poland, decided after two days of deliberations not to order the arrest of Judge Igor Tuleya.
Tuleya, a judge at the Warsaw District Court, was stripped of his immunity by the Disciplinary Chamber last year and faces criminal charges brought by state prosecutors. However, he has repeatedly refused to appear before prosecutors, leading to their request to the chamber to have him arrested and brought to them by force.
Adam Roch, the judge who read the decision, said the chamber in making its decision had “considered issues related to human freedom.”
Prosecutors have the right to appeal the decision and that appeared likely.
Tuleya told cheering supporters who had been waiting outside the Supreme Court: “We won a small battle today, but the war to protect the rule of law is still going on. We will fight till the end.”
For two days police encircled the court in Warsaw while a small group of protesters and lawyers joined Tuleya in waiting outside for a decision.
The prosecutor has charged Tuleya with a criminal breach of secrecy for allowing journalists into his courtroom for a verdict in 2017. The charges carry a maximum sentence of three years. Tuleya has said that allowing the journalists in the court was fully permitted under the criminal code and that he revealed no secrets.
Government critics consider the charges against Tuleya to be a pretext, and argue they are intended to warn other judges to fall in line with the conservative government’s interests or be punished.
“The situation is terrifying. That is why you can see so many lawyers in front of the court. We are all threatened,” said Michal Wawrykiewicz, a lawyer with Free Courts, a group fighting for the rule of law.
After the right-wing Law and Justice party came to power in 2015, it moved quickly to take control of most aspects of Poland's justice system, successfully establishing political control over the Constitutional Tribunal and other judicial bodies.
Nearly six years later, however, it still struggles to control the lower courts, where independent judges often issue rulings that run counter to the government.
The governing party claims it has sought to clean up a court system it characterizes as inefficient and corrupt. Party leaders say Tuleya, with his open criticism of the judicial overhaul, has acted like a political activist.
Tuleya denies that.
“If you look at my public statements, they all are exclusively about the judiciary, rule of law and the constitution," he told The Associated Press earlier Thursday.
Democracy activists argue that Poland has taken an anti-democratic turn under Law and Justice and see the resistance of judges like Tuleya to be one of the last bulwarks against the erosion of citizens' rights.
Poland's own Supreme Court and the European Union consider the Disciplinary Chamber that examined Tuleya's case to be an illegal body. The bloc's executive commission asked the EU's top court recently to investigate the matter.