WARSAW, Poland – Tens of thousands of people took to the streets of Warsaw and towns across Poland on Thursday night to protest the ruling party's drive to reorganize all levels of the judiciary, including contentious legislation that gives control of the nation's Supreme Court to the president instead of to judges.
Poland's prime minister appeared on national television to defend the changes as opponents of her government urged the president to reject the changes.
Opposition lawmakers and celebrities joined the crowd in front of the Presidential Palace in Warsaw as protesters held up candles, waved national and European Union flags and chanted "free courts" and "democracy."
Warsaw police spokesman Mariusz Mrozek said some 14,000 participated, while city hall estimated the crowd at 50,000.
The crowd later moved to the parliament building where a Senate commission was debating the Supreme Court law, ahead of Senate's Friday session.
Critics say the Supreme Court legislation and two earlier bills destroy judicial independence and threaten democracy.
In her nationwide speech, Beata Szydlo said that the legislation was prompted by public criticism of the legal system's inefficiency and blamed the outcry it has triggered on the opposition's "frustration."
Szydlo insisted the government will not bow to pressure "from Polish or from foreign defenders of the interest of the elites."
Her comments appeared to refer to warnings from the European Union of sanctions against Poland, including the possibility of stripping Warsaw of its EU voting rights.
Szydlo spoke after lawmakers voted to approve the contentious Supreme Court legislation. Critics concede that the judiciary needs reform, but that the proposed changes are going in the wrong direction.
The bill also calls for the dismissal of the court's current judges, except for those chosen by the president. It rearranges the court's structure and adds a Disciplinary Chamber that would handle breaches of rules or ethics in the justice system.
European Union president, Donald Tusk, Poland's former prime minister, has appealed to President Andrzej Duda for a meeting to seek ways out of the situation that, he said, goes against EU values and is destructive to Poland's international image.
The bill still needs approval from the Senate, which is expected to be granted at a session Friday, and from Duda, a lawyer, who has so far followed the ruling party line.
Earlier Thursday, a small group of protesters kicked metal barriers that separated them from the parliament, chanting "Shame!" to express their anger at the lawmakers.
The new law is part of the ruling party's drive to reorganize all levels of Poland's judiciary. The party leader, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, also a lawyer, insists the justice system needs radical reform because, he says, it still works along communist-era lines — a claim judges dispute.
Party spokeswoman, Beata Mazurek, said Thursday that people in small towns across the country have a sense the justice system is not on their side and the party wants to change that.
"We are taking Poland in the right direction," Mazurek said.
But not all agree.
Supreme Court chief Malgorzata Gersdorf says, on average, the court takes seven months to rule on a case — but she calls that a good result, even by European standards, given that the court handles the most difficult and complicated matters.
Opposition lawmaker and former justice minister Borys Budka says the bill makes the judges dependent on one party and denies citizens the right to independent courts. He also condemned the speed with which the bill was passed, saying it was done without proper public consultation.