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Europe watchdog voices fears over Polish court reforms

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Strasbourg (France) (AFP)

Europe's top rights watchdog expressed fears Tuesday over Poland's controversial court reforms, which critics warn will end judicial independence and undermine democracy.

In a letter to the speaker of Poland's parliament the head of the Council of Europe expressed "concern" over a bill introduced by the ruling party that would replace all Supreme Court judges except those chosen by the justice minister.

"An efficient, impartial and independent judiciary is the cornerstone of any functioning system of democratic checks and balances," the council's secretary general Thorbjorn Jagland wrote.

Maintaining the principle of "irremovability" of judges was central to guaranteeing that independence, he added.

The head of the 47-nation council, which defends democracy and human rights in Europe, said the pace at which the bill was introduced by the conservative Law and Justice (PiS) party "also raise(s) questions."

"The public, including all relevant stakeholders, should have a meaningful opportunity to provide input," Jagland urged.

He voiced further dismay at Poland's failure to address concerns over a separate bill adopted last week that gives the PiS-dominated parliament a greater say in the appointment of a council that oversees the judiciary.

The ruling party says the reforms are meant to make the judiciary more accountable but the opposition has accused it of trying to bring judges to heel.

Several thousand people demonstrated in Warsaw on Sunday over the reforms, with some calling PiS leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski a "dictator".

Since winning 2015 elections, Poland's conservative government has also stepped up state control over public broadcasters and changed the way the constitutional court operates.

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