As a Polish judge, I know what happens when you resist the government’s grip on the judiciary ǀ View

As a judge, my job is to ensure that justice is done both for the victims of crime and those who commit it. The people who come through my courtroom have suffered unfairness and injustice in a variety of circumstances. But I never expected that I, too, would experience such injustice in my role as a judge – particularly not from the Polish government. Yet, we are facing uncharted waters here. Just last week, the European Commission (EC) decided to move forward with infringement proceedings against Poland for its new disciplinary regime against judges. If Poland does not bring the matter into compliance with the EU law, the EC may refer the case to the Courts of Justice of the EU.

I have unwillingly become a vivid example of such injustices. Ever since the Polish government announced its so called “judicial reform,” I have been engaged in defending democratic values in Poland, especially those concerning the judiciary and people’s rights. After the appalling murder of Pawel Adamowicz, the socially progressive mayor of my home city, Gdańsk, I tweeted, “This is how hate speech ends.” I was surprised to say the least when the Disciplinary Prosecutor wrote to me demanding I explain the tweet.

Soon after that, the Disciplinary Prosecutor sent me another letter, protesting my being granted the Gdańsk Equality Award, for which I was chosen by Gdańsk Council of Equal Treatment and formally presented by the late mayor. I had donated the proceeds of the award to charity but the Disciplinary Prosecutor still alleged that I had “committed an offence against the dignity of a judge” for “accepting the award from the mayor” because he was a defendant in a case in a different division of my court. Little did it matter that I had nothing to do with that case and only learned about it from the media.

The disciplinary proceedings I am being subjected to were created by the Ministry of Justice and backed by the MPs from the governing Law and Justice (PiS) party. They are supposed to be an accountability tool for what the state deems to be unprofessional behaviours. In reality, as my case highlights, these disciplinary procedures are nothing to do with safeguarding judicial service standards but are an attempt to silence judges and ensure their submission to the Ministry of Justice. Their aim is to ensure that no judge dares to speak out against the authorities’ ongoing hijacking of the judiciary.

I would never have imagined that colleagues – people who call themselves judges – would participate in harassing other judges who dare defend the judicial system from political influence and who want to uphold respect for constitutional values. It has been a great disappointment to realise that I was wrong.

The harassment I have seen has not been limited to disciplinary investigations. The Disciplinary Prosecutor has also subjected me to a smear campaign, writing in a letter to the Ombudsman (also publishing it on his website) and eventually charging me in June with “accepting money” from a defendant, the late mayor of Gdańsk.

I am in no doubt that the Disciplinary Prosecutor and his deputies’ actions are politically motivated and highly biased towards the government. Their actions are designed to scare and discourage judges from taking a stand against government attacks and to try to discredit and harass them in any possible way. These are not things which should happen within an independent judiciary – or a country where the rule of law still reigns.

It is both comforting and alarming to know that I am not alone in my experiences. I share them with many of my colleagues which Amnesty International has documented in their report, ‘Poland: Free Courts, Free People.’ While the form of harassment differs from person to person, there is a pattern. After the judge or prosecutor attempts to counter the government “reforms,” they find their behaviour – online and offline – is put under intense scrutiny; it is never long before an excuse is found to begin ‘disciplinary proceedings.’ The excuses have been diverse, but always feeble. Some of my colleagues have been targeted for turning to the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) with questions; others have been investigated for exercising their right to freedom of expression.

One of the most serious threats to the right to a fair trial in Poland is the targeting of judges with disciplinary proceedings for the content of their rulings. As of September 2018, Disciplinary Prosecutor Piotr Schab and his two deputies began targeting judges whose decisions in the courtroom were in their opinion “political,” including acquitting people protesting the government’s judicial “reform.”

As a judge, I feel a sense of obligation to protect the freedoms of citizens I serve. Having lived for years under Communist rule, I hold those freedoms very dear. I will continue to fight attempts to diminish these rights. The government seems determined to tighten its grip on the judiciary and we will need the support of the international community to continue to resist and survive; not only for the Polish people and their human rights and freedoms, but for people throughout Europe.

Dorota Zabłudowska is a judge on the Gdańsk District Court in Poland

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