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Polish judges and journalists visit UG to fight for their threatened judiciary

The fight for Poland’s independent judiciary came to Groningen over the weekend. During a student organised festival both Dutch and Polish dignitaries expressed their support for the under threat Polish judiciary.

The ‘Our Rule of Law Festival’, organised over the 17th and 18th of September by four second year International and European Law students (Tekla Emborg, Anna Walczak, Elene Amiranashvili and Zuzanna Uba) saw the Harmony Building become part of the fight for Poland’s fair and independent judiciary. 

In a fitting piece of coincidence the festival took place at the same time as billboards across Poland were plastered many of the festival’s messages. On the 18th of each month Polish judges and their supporters use their own money to pay for billboards on trailers, on the backs of buses and on prominent street corners in an effort to remind and educate Poles of the importance of an independent judiciary. But last weekend the figures often mentioned on the billboards were in Groningen to attend the festival.

Judicial immunity

Central to the festival is the story of Polish district court judge Igor Tuleya and his supporters. Tuleya, stern looking with a penchant for satirical t-shirts, is a vocal critic of the Polish government’s attempts to pass reforms that see the curtailing of a free and fair bench. 

Because of his dissent Tuleya has had his judicial immunity revoked at the behest of the government’s Disciplinary Chamber, excrement smeared on the door of his home and was the subject of a ‘Ministry of Justice orchestrated troll campaign’. 

The chamber, not recognised as binding by the European Union nor Poland’s own Supreme Court, is seen as a politicised attempt to oust judges critical of the ruling Law and Justice party.

Dining with judges

‘We wanted the festival to be accessible to all. We didn’t want it just to be distant voices in suits’, says Tekla Emborg, one of the organising students. 

Although there were suits in attendance the guest list was varied. The festival saw members of the Polish and Dutch Judiciaries, free press and activist circles descend upon the city. Co-organiser Zuzanna Uba said the event had ‘seen enormous support from Dutch and Polish speakers and communities.’ 

Igor Tuleya (on the right) with (the two in the middle) Zuzanna Uba and Anna Walczak of the Our Rule of Law organisation

The program saw a select group of law students dine with the Polish delegation. On the menu talk of how the young can aid in the fight to maintain the rule of law across Europe and, of course, Polish vodka.

High stakes

With the effects of the vodka slept off, the following morning featured a panel session of Tuleya, fellow Polish judge Dariusz Mazur and Arnhem-Leeuwarden court of appeals judge Tijn van Osch. An engaged audience of forty students nodded along as they were reminded of the stakes in this saga. Mazur was asked if ‘he too might soon be suspended for his speaking out?’ His answer: simple and partly in jest – was to move his chair away from Tuleya.

Sun shone on the courtyard of the Harmony building as students milled about in the break, sharing lunch and stories with academics, judges, and dissident Poles. Several students declared that they’d ‘be talking about the event for days.’

In a later session members of Poland’s OKO.press took to the floor. OKO.press, one of Poland’s few independent news media, has been key in ‘explaining, documenting and monitoring’ the situation in Poland, often copping flak for their efforts: ‘we are afraid that first judges will be prosecuted and journalists will soon follow’, said OKO.press journalist Anna Wójcik.

Student initiative

A happy accident brought the four students together, meeting after a lecture on the judiciary in Poland held by their professor John Morijn. ‘Anna and I met at the lecture and I said to her we have to do something about this. The next week we discussed it over a walk in the park and we happened to bump into Elene and Zuzanna,’ says Tekla. Effusive in his opinion of the event Morijn said: ‘this is absolutely the biggest compliment of my life that this was inspired by my teaching.’ ‘I gave little direction, this was very self motivated’, says Morijn.

The student-led event was a first for Groningen. Where the project goes from here remains to be seen, says Tekla, ‘we’ll take a break for a few weeks and see what happens next.’ The sentiment of the day was well summed up by Tuleya himself, singing the event’s praises he remarked, ‘the most heart warming aspect is that young people care and are involved.’

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