By Lidia Kelly
WARSAW (Reuters) - Plans to overhaul Poland's judiciary would end the country's status as a democratic state based on the rule of law and should be scrapped, more than two dozen rights groups and non-governmental organisations said in a petition on Wednesday.
The petition, backed by Amnesty International and the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights among others, came as parliament started debating amendments agreed by President Andrzej Duda and the ruling Law and Justice party (PiS).
The proposals give the parliament a virtually free hand in deciding the composition of the Supreme Court and how judges are selected and are "in gross conflict" with the constitution, the signatories said in their petition.
"The introduction of these amendments will mean that Poland will definitely cease to be a democratic state of law," it said.
"We request the immediate stoppage of parliamentary work on (the bills) and demand the start of extensive public consultations on this."
The nationalist, eurosceptic PiS, which has a parliamentary majority, says reform of the judicial system is needed because the courts are slow, inefficient and steeped in a communist-era mentality.
Duda had raised hopes among critics of the plans that they could be halted when he vetoed the original PiS proposals in July, following nationwide protests and warnings from the European Union.
The president, an ally of PiS, said then that the proposals gave too much power to one party and to the justice minister.
But subsequent work on the amendments has been conducted in secrecy, spurring criticism from the United Nations and the European Commission that they could further damage Poland's judicial system.
Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the leader of PiS and Poland's paramount politician, has met privately with Duda several times for talks. Details of those meetings have not been made public and it is not known what consensus has been reached.
"The president gave us some hope that the constitution would not be so continually abused," said Irena Kaminska, a judge and a member of the Themis association of judges.
"For a moment I had hoped there would be a breakthrough, but that has not happened."
Stanislaw Piotrowicz, head of parliament's justice committee, told the PAP state news agency that lawmakers could complete work on the bills at the next session, planned for Dec. 6-8.
If the bills pass they could potentially allow PiS to tighten its control of the political system, its critics said.
Marcin Matczak of the Batory Foundation in Warsaw, one of the NGO signatories to the petition, said PiS would be able to change the electoral system to its own advantage because the judges would no longer challenge them.
"After the (court) laws are implemented the government will be able to rule eternally," he said. "There will be no one to defend us."
The EU is pressing a legal case against Poland over its judicial reform plans and has suggested the country could forfeit some development funds if it refuses to change course. PiS says it has a democratic mandate for its reforms.
(Writing by Lidia Kelly; Editing by Toby Chopra)