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Polish deputy minister resigns over judge trolling scandal


By Alan Charlish

WARSAW (Reuters) - Polish Deputy Justice Minister Lukasz Piebiak said he was resigning on Tuesday, following a report he sought to discredit judges critical of the government's judicial reforms by planting media rumors about their private lives.

It was the latest in a series of scandals to hit Poland's ruling nationalists - who have come under European Union fire over moves to increase political controls over the judiciary - ahead of elections in October.

"With a sense of responsibility for the success of reforms to which I have devoted four years of hard work, I am handing in my resignation from the office of undersecretary of state to the minister of justice," Piebiak said in a statement sent to state-run news agency PAP.

The Onet.pl website reported late on Monday that Piebiak was behind a campaign to blackball critical judges including Krystian Markiewicz, a prominent critic of the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party and head of the judicial association Iustitia.

It published alleged transcripts of conversations between Piebiak and a woman named as Emilia in which they weighed plans to anonymously send material with rumors about Markiewicz's private life to regional branches of Iustitia and to his home.

Emilia, whose surname was not given, acted as an intermediary between the ministry of justice and pro-government media, and posted material online intended to compromise certain judges, according to Onet.pl.

Onet.pl's report provoked an outcry from the centrist opposition and prompted Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki to demand explanations.

Markiewicz told private broadcaster TVN 24: "We are dealing with systematic actions taken against judges, against the rule of law in Poland. If such an attack can be made against judges and professors, it means it can be made against everyone."

Contacted by Onet.pl, Piebiak said he knew Emilia only "from Twitter" and declined further comment.

"SCANDALOUS SITUATION"

Poland's right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party has pushed through a range of reforms since taking power in 2015 that the European Commission and rights groups say jeopardize the rule of law by politicizing judicial appointments.

The PiS has argued the changes were needed to improve the efficiency of the courts and rid Poland of residues of Communist rule, which ended three decades ago.

Opposition politicians accused the government on Tuesday of using state structures to discredit critics and demanded the dismissal of both Piebiak and Justice Minister and Prosecutor General Zbigniew Ziobro.

"Mr Ziobro, according to the media reports, knew perfectly well about this scandalous situation of baiting independent judges, what's more, he accepted it," opposition lawmaker Pawel Olszewski told a news conference.

Onet.pl said Piebiak was supposed to inform an unidentified "boss" about the effects of the posted rumors.

"This is dangerous for the state, for democratic order... especially because it affects judges and it is paid for with public money," said Anna Materska-Sosnowska, a political scientist at Warsaw University.

Poland's parliament speaker resigned this month after it was revealed that he used government aircraft for private trips, a move that suggested the PiS was keen to defuse bad publicity that could affect its re-election bid.

The PiS still looks set to win the Oct. 13 parliamentary vote, regularly polling over 40%. The main opposition Civic Coalition is below 30% in most polls.

(Reporting by Alan Charlish, Marcin Goclowski and Joanna Plucinska, Editing by Mark Heinrich and Ed Osmond)

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