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Protesters Demand Judicial Independence For Poland's Supreme Court


Many say democracy is being tested right now in Europe because in Poland, tens of thousands of people took to the streets in more than 100 cities and towns last night. They were protesting what they and much of the world see as a government attempt to take control of the Polish Supreme Court. The ouster of the sitting justices not aligned with the ruling party still has to be approved by the Polish Senate and signed into law by the Polish president. As NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson reports from Warsaw, that's expected to happen as early as today.


LUKASZ SIMLAT: (Speaking Polish).

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: Protesters packed the streets leading to the presidential palace, near which Polish actor Lukasz Simlat read from the Constitution.



NELSON: The crowd responded with chants of free courts, free courts. In front of the Parliament, thousands held lit candles and sang the Polish national anthem.



NELSON: It was here where hours earlier, MPs from the populist Law and Justice Party, who make up the parliamentary majority, voted in effect to remove all Supreme Court judges who don't agree with them. The justice minister from the same political party will have a big say in picking the new judges. Polish Prime Minister Beata Szydlo went on air to defend the vote as a promised reform to a system many polls criticize as inefficient.



NELSON: She vowed her government would not bow to pressure from Polish critics or from what she described as foreign defenders of the interests of the elites. Outside the presidential palace, first-time protester Natalia Skoczylas wasn't buying it. She says the new measure kills judicial independence.

NATALIA SKOCZYLAS: This time is too much because they are changing the law in a very, very dangerous way. And that is why I came here, because this is the first time that they made me so angry.

NELSON: Fifty-four-year-old Marc Fontenelle waved an EU flag with the word help taped on one side.

MARC FONTENELLE: I mean, democracy is still kind of a new thing here in Poland. But this is a total going back in the past. It's even worse than communism. It's even worse - it's a total manipulation of everything. And you can see the crowd in the streets. I mean, many of the youth, they don't even remember, really, communism, what it was.

NELSON: EU officials in Brussels have repeatedly warned Poland they are close to triggering Article 7, which is a never-before-used sanction that could leave Poland without voting rights in the European bloc. The sanction requires approval by the EU's 27 other members, but for now, Hungary is firmly opposed. Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Warsaw.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAST LUNGS' "33") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Special correspondent Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson is based in Berlin. Her reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and read at NPR.org. From 2012 until 2018 Nelson was NPR's bureau chief in Berlin. She won the ICFJ 2017 Excellence in International Reporting Award for her work in Central and Eastern Europe, North Africa, the Middle East and Afghanistan.