Tens of thousands of protesters gathered in Warsaw and cities across Poland for candle-lit vigils to protest against a bill to overhaul Poland’s Supreme Court.
Some protesters carried Polish and European Union flags, chanting “free courts”.
Poland’s upper house of parliament debated the bill into the night and finally approved it, defying the European Union and critics at home who say the legislation would undermine democratic checks and balances.
To become law, the proposal still has to be signed by President Andrzej Duda, an ally of the ruling conservative Law and Justice party, who say new legislation is needed to make the judiciary accountable and efficient.
But the opposition and judge’s groups in Poland as well as critics in Brussels say the legislation is a new step by the Polish government towards authoritarianism.
The United States, Poland’s most important ally in NATO, issued a statement urging Poland to ensure any changes respect the constitution.
“We urge all sides to ensure that any judicial reform does not violate Poland’s constitution or international legal obligations and respects the principles of judicial independence and separation of powers,” it said in a statement.
The government of the EU’s biggest eastern member state has so far dismissed criticism, saying the changes would ensure state institutions serve all Poles, not just the “elites”.
It insists that the changes are needed to overhaul an inefficient system that has not been purged since Poland emerged from Communism almost three decades ago.
On Wednesday, the EU gave Poland a week to shelve the judicial reforms that Brussels says would put courts under direct government control.
If the PiS government does not back down, Poland could face fines and even a suspension of its voting rights, although other eurosceptic EU governments, notably Hungary, are likely to veto strict punishments.
Senior Czech judges denounced the judicial overhaul in Poland as an attack on the rule of law. The PiS has offered some concessions on demands from the president, but has presented criticism from abroad as unacceptable meddling in the domestic affairs of the country, which joined the EU in 2004.
“We will not give into pressure. We will not be intimidated by Polish and foreign defenders of the interests of the elite,” Prime Minister Beata Szydlo said in an address on state television.