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Poland OKs Law That Puts Top Court Under Political Control

Police officers carry away a protester from the parliament area after lawmakers voted to approve a law on court control, in the parliament in Warsaw, Poland, July 20, 2017.

Polish lawmakers voted Thursday to approve a contentious law that gives control of the nation's Supreme Court to the president instead of to judges, sparking new protests outside parliament in Warsaw.

The bill on the Supreme Court has drawn condemnation from the European Union and has led to street protests. Critics say it kills judicial independence and violates the rule of law.

The new law, proposed by the ruling populist Law and Justice party, gives the nation's president the power to influence the court's work and to appoint its judges. It calls for the dismissal of the court's current judges, except for those chosen by the president. It rearranges the court's structure and adds a Disciplinary Chamber that would handle breaches of rules or ethics in the justice system.

The vote Thursday was 235-192 with 23 abstentions. It came after a parliamentary commission summarily rejected 1,300 opposition amendments.

European Union president, Donald Tusk, Poland's former prime minister, has appealed to President Andrzej Duda for a meeting to seek ways out of the situation that, he said, goes against EU values and is destructive to Poland's international image.

The bill still needs to win approval from the Senate, which is expected to be granted at a session Friday, and from Duda, who has so far followed the ruling party line.

Protesters in Warsaw on Thursday kicked the metal barriers that separate them from the parliament, chanting "Shame!'' Some carried banners urging Duda to veto the bill.

The new law is part of the ruling party's drive to reorganize all levels of Poland's judiciary. The party leader, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, insists the justice system needs radical reform and new people because, he says, it still works along communist-era lines — a claim judges dispute.

Party spokeswoman, Beata Mazurek, said Thursday that people in small towns across the country have a sense the justice system is not on their side and the party wants to change that.

"We are taking Poland in the right direction,'' Mazurek said.

Many observers say the justice system is inefficient and needs reform.

Supreme Court chief Malgorzata Gersdorf says, on average, the court takes seven months to rule on a case — but she calls that a good result, given that the court handles the most difficult and complicated matters.

Opposition lawmaker and former justice minister Borys Budka says the bill makes the judges dependent on one party and denies citizens the right to independent courts. He also condemned the speed with which the bill was passed, saying it was done without proper public consultation.

The European Commission has warned it could strip Poland of its European Union voting rights over the changes the government is making to the judiciary.