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BREAKING NEWS

Lawyers lament harsh sentences, rushed changes in Poland's criminal code

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By Joanna Plucinska and Anna Wlodarczak-Semczuk

WARSAW (Reuters) - Polish lawmakers have approved a package of criminal justice reforms condemned as too tough by legal experts who also accused the conservative ruling party of rushing through important legislative changes in violation of democratic principles.

The bill was approved late on Thursday after approximately two days of debate that was centred mostly around a proposed increase of prison terms for paedophilia to up to 30 years from a maximum of 12 years.

Critics accused the Law and Justice (PiS) party of exploiting public anger around fresh revelations of child abuse in the Catholic Church in a documentary published last weekend.

"The fact that PiS added the matter of paedophilia is a mystification, it's manipulation," said Jan Grabiec, the spokesperson for the main opposition Civic Platform party.

The legislation passed with 263 votes in favour, mostly from the ruling PiS party, three against and three abstentions, according to state-run news agency PAP.

But most lawmakers from Civic Platform and some other opposition parties in the 460-seat lower house opted not to take part in the vote, arguing the reform was inadequate in tackling paedophilia.

The PiS has been scrambling to respond to the documentary on child abuse in the Catholic Church which has drawn almost 19 million views in just under a week. The party's close ties to the church have made it a lightning rod for criticism.

"There are doubts on what the point of the change is. Is it really about improving safety or about gaining electoral percentage points? This is banal populism," said Piotr Kladoczny, an expert in criminal law and member of the board of the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights.

PiS spokeswoman Beata Mazurek said the party supported "harsh penalties for murder and robbery and these are also the society's expectations."

LACK OF TRANSPARENCY

When the Ministry of Justice first proposed the changes to the criminal code in January, these were met with criticism from lawyers and human rights specialists, especially the introduction of life sentences without parole.

The European Court of Human Rights has ruled that a sentence of life without any possibility of parole is inhumane.

"This (decision to introduce life sentences without parole) breaks the fundamental standards of a democratic country," said Katarzyna Gajowniczek-Pruszynska, the vice-dean of the Warsaw Bar Association.

The bill must still be approved by the Senate and signed off by the President.

PiS has been in conflict with the European Commission, the EU executive, since the start of 2016 over its proposed reforms of Poland's judicial system, which critics say give politicians too much influence over the judiciary. Most EU countries back the Commission.

Worried about the government flouting basic democratic standards in the country of 38 million people, the Commission has launched an unprecedented procedure to see whether Poland is observing the rule of law.

Polish opposition MP and legal expert Robert Kropiwnicki criticised the way the reform package had been tabled and rushed through parliament.

"The criminal code is not a toy... there has been no legal opinion, no opinion from legal advisors (on the changes)...this breaks certain principles of transparent legislation."

The Ministry of Justice did not respond to a request for comment from Reuters.

(Reporting by Joanna Plucinska, Alan Charlish and Anna Wlodarczak-Semczuk, Writing by Joanna Plucinska; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky)

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