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EU opens new legal case against Poland over muzzling judges

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The European Union’s executive on Wednesday started a new legal case against the nationalist Polish government over what it said was the muzzling of judges in the bloc’s largest ex-communist country.

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The EU has long accused the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party of undermining Polish democracy by increasing direct state control over the courts, media and civic society, a charge the party rejects.

The European Commission said it was giving Poland two months to address its concerns about a law introduced earlier this year that would allow to punish judges who criticise the government’s reforms of the judicial system.

“There are clear risks that the provisions regarding the disciplinary regime against judges can be used for political control of the content of judicial decisions,” said Vera Jourova, the Czech member of the executive Commission who is responsible for upholding the EU’s democratic values.

“This is a European issue because Polish courts apply European law. Judges from other countries must trust that Polish judges act independently. This mutual trust is the foundation of our single market,” she told a news conference.

Should Warsaw refuse to budge, the Commission would sue it in the European Court of Justice, which could eventually lead to hefty fines as well as a court order telling the Polish government to change tack.

The case is one of multiple battles being waged between the EU and Poland over upholding the rule of law.

The Commission has also recently criticised Warsaw’s decision to press ahead with a presidential election next month despite concerns over public health due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The PiS-led government is considering holding the election by postal ballot, saying this would ensure public safety, but opposition parties and pro-democracy groups say such a vote, held at such short notice, could not be fair or transparent.

“We cannot compromise or put in lockdown our fundamental rights and values,” Jourova said on Wednesday. “The virus must not kill democracy.”

Opposition parties and rights groups have urged a lengthy delay to the presidential election. If held on schedule, on May 10, opinion polls suggest incumbent Andrzej Duda, a PiS ally, will win re-election.

Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki reaffirmed on Wednesday the government’s plan to hold the election on time, or with a small delay of a couple of weeks at most.

Reporting by Gabriela Baczynska; Editing by Gareth Jones