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What the fate of one village reveals about Poland's justice system

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What the fate of one village reveals about Poland's justice system

Grabówka - the roundabout where residents planned to celebrate
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Natalia Ojewska
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For almost three decades the residents of a tiny village of Grabówka and few other neighbouring villages located in the Polish conservative northeastern region of Podlasie campaigned to separate from the bigger municipality of Supraśl.

"Our own municipality would mean that we could independently manage our financial resources. We would be able to develop own plans and all this would be beneficial for us", argues Wioletta Siekmak, who lives in the village of Sobolewo and teaches Polish at the nearby Primary School in Białystok. Other residents point to the advantages of not having to travel to obtain documents and conduct official business.

In July 2015 it looked like they had finally won the battle, when the coalition government under the Civic Platform (PO) passed a resolution granting Grabówka a new civic status from the first of January 2016.

However, before the decision could be enforced, elections brought in a new government, the conservative Law and Justice party (PiS) whose support base in Podlasie was worried that the separation of the village would deprive them of important revenues.

Natalia Ojewska
Campaigner Tadeusz KarpowiczNatalia Ojewska

“People could not wait for New Year’s Eve. We wanted to gather at the local roundabout and drink champagne at midnight. We never opened the champagne bottles, though. We still have them, because three days before the resolution was planned to come into force, we learned that the Law and Justice’s government had revoked it,” recalls Ludmiła Sawicka, the mayor of Sobolewo, a village neighbouring with Grabówka.

However, residents weren’t willing to give up and took their case to the Constitutional Tribunal. All three judges on the panel, appointed under the new government, ruled in June 2017 that the decision revoking Grabówka's municipal status violated Polish law.

But as the village's residents have learned, facts on the ground can trump the law. The Ministry of the Interior and Administration (MSWiA), which supervises regional authorities, confirmed in an e-mail to EURONEWS that “no work is being carried out within the MSWiA regarding the establishment of the municipality of Grabówka” without explaining the reasons behind its refusal to comply with the Constitutional Tribunal’s judgement.

“This demonstrates disregard towards ordinary citizens showing that, in fact, their voice does not matter to anyone,” observed Siekmak, the local teacher.

'Consequences of subordinating the judiciary'

Since scoring a landslide victory in 2015 October parliamentary elections, the governing PiS party led by Jarosław Kaczyński has instituted a series of bills reforming the de facto entire judicial system including the Supreme Court and the Constitutional Tribunal.

The government describes the changes to the judicial framework as fundamental measures to overhaul a court system still marked with corruption and inefficiency dating back to the communist era.

But opponents both inside and outside the country say that the legal reforms pose a threat to the rule of law arguing that they aim to bring the judiciary under political control.

“The unresolved situation of the residents of Grabówka should serve for all Polish citizens as an example of the consequences of the rapid and radical process of subordinating the judiciary by the executive power”, commented Jan Skórzyński, a political scientist and professor at Collegium Civitas.

In the context of this dispute, Marek Chmaj, an expert in constitutional law, described the situation resulting difficulty in finding an unambiguous interpretation of the Constitutional Tribunal’s judgment on the establishment of the municipality of Grabówka as “grotesque”.

“On the one hand, they [the Law and Justice party] announced they were reforming the Constitutional Tribunal. Then, the institution was reformed. They appointed their own judges resulting in the paralysis of this body, and then they even do not respect the judgements issued by the people whom they have themselves selected. It is hard to understand,” said Chmaj.

For the last three years, Poland’s nationalist government under the Law and Justice party (PiS) has been systematically and consequently adopting bills reforming the judicial bodies in a controversial process overshadowed by nationwide protests, the European Union’s accusations that they pose a threat to the rule of law and legal experts’ warnings that securing politicians with greater influence over the judiciary will take a toll on regular citizens.

The European Union has voiced strong criticism over the first legislative amendments affecting the Constitutional Tribunal and opened an unprecedented infringement procedure against Poland examining whether the judiciary changes pose a threat to the separation of powers and thus, have violated the EU’s fundamental democratic laws.

The eurosceptic Law and Justice party’s refusal to modify the reforms, has significantly impacted relations between Warsaw and Brussels, which have recently been marked by repeated escalations of tensions and growing diplomatic distance and resentment.

Amid this political impasse, Tadeusz Karpowicz, who has spent the last 24 years advocating for the creation of the new administrative unit, has decided to bring the case of Supraśl before the European Court for human rights.

However, he is sceptical that a European decision in his favour will have more impact than the Polish one.

“If the government does not react, it will simply force us to take the matter to the streets. We will block Supraśl. Let’s see what happens then”, said Karpowicz, his voice full of determination.