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Poland's justice minister disputes tenure of top judge

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Warsaw (AFP)

Poland's justice minister insisted Thursday that Supreme Court chief Malgorzata Gersdorf had retired under a law that she has rejected as unconstitutional and the EU has criticised as a threat to judicial independence.

Gersdorf, 65, has refused to comply with the law that took effect on Tuesday at midnight and brings down the retirement age for Supreme Court judges from 70 to 65. She insists that Article 183.3 of the constitution sets her term at six years, overriding the new law.

Gersdorf was working at the Supreme Court on Thursday, a court spokeswoman told AFP. Thousands of supporters had greeted the disputed chief justice at the court when she arrived for work on Wednesday in defiance of the law.

However, right-wing Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro insists that Article 180.4 of the constitution, which stipulates that the retirement age of judges is set by legislation, trumps the six-year term cited by Gersdorf.

"The Constitution clearly states that whether someone is going into retirement or not is decided by common law," Ziobro told state broadcaster Polish Radio on Thursday.

"Under the constitution, Mrs. Gersdorf has retired because she exceeded the age limit of 65," he said, adding that Gersdorf has not filed a complaint with the Constitutional Court to question the constitutionality of the new retirement law.

"This is the only body (Constitutional Court) that could decide whether a law is compatible with the constitution or not," he said.

The Constitutional Court also underwent controversial reforms introduced by the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) government in 2016. Critics allege the changes were unconstitutional and stacked the court with PiS allies.

- 'Systemic threats' -

Critics have warned that the judicial overhaul poses a threat to the separation of powers, a key pillar of democracy in the EU member state.

Twenty-seven of the Supreme Court's 73 judges are affected by the new law. Justices can ask the president to prolong their terms, but he can accept or deny their requests without giving a reason. Sixteen judges have made requests.

Ten judges have complied with the retirement legislation, a Supreme Court spokeswoman told AFP on Thursday.

"We contest the law, but we cannot directly invoke the constitution, so we have complied with it," Michal Laskowski, a Supreme Court justice, told the liberal Gazeta Wyborcza daily.

The PiS government has pushed ahead with the new rules despite the European Union launching legal action on Monday that could end up in the European Court of Justice (ECJ), the bloc's top tribunal.

It was the latest salvo in a bitter battle over sweeping judicial changes introduced by the PiS since it took office in 2015.

Brussels in December triggered Article Seven proceedings against Poland over "systemic threats" to the rule of law, which could eventually see Warsaw's EU voting rights suspended.

Tens of thousands of Poles have protested the judicial reforms and attempts to tighten Poland's already strict abortion law, among other causes.

Poland's anti-communist freedom icon Lech Walesa joined protesters at the Supreme Court on Wednesday evening.

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