Justice | Poland

“I don’t feel like a hero”

A judge accuses the Polish government of undermining the rule of law - and has been under investigation by prosecutors since 2016. An interview

A portrait of a middle-aged man with glasses. He looks sceptical.

Judge Igor Tuleya


Interview by Michał Sutowski

Mr. Tuleya, the Disciplinary Chamber of the Supreme Court was supposed to have you arrested and summoned at the request of the prosecution. At the end of April, you were surprisingly acquitted. How did this happen?

The “Disciplinary Chamber” is not an independent court. The body was created by the government to intimidate the judges and is made up of people close to the Minister of Justice. So the decisions are not made in Krasiński Square, where the Supreme Court is based, but rather in the offices of politicians.

And in one of these offices it was decided not to have you brought in handcuffs for questioning after all?

No one knows what went on behind the scenes. Some think the fact that I was not arrested is a reflection of tensions within the government. Others think that some government loyalists suspect that the PiS's power will come to an end. But it can also be a calculation of the government camp, which does not want to damage its image unnecessarily.

Does it take particular courage in Poland today to stand up for the rule of law and justice?

I don’t feel like a hero  - and I don’t think we judges are particularly courageous either. But we don’t usually talk publicly about our inner conflicts either. In the closest circle of friends it sometimes happens that someone says: “I am afraid.” Nevertheless, courage is a big word. If I thought about whether my judgement would suit those in power, then I would be out of place in my job.

Even if the government threatens you with consequences?

Of course. Even before the election victory of the PiS in 2015, it happened again and again that our decisions were criticised in public or that the government distanced itself and said it considered certain sentences too lenient. But there were no attacks from politicians or even the Minister of Justice himself, and no one called for judges to be punished for “wrong” sentences.

“For those in power, any judge who takes a public stand to protect the rule of law is a thorn in the side”

What should a judge in Poland be afraid of today?

First and foremost of disciplinary proceedings, because that can lead to impeachment. But since it has recently become apparent that the intimidation effect that the government expects from this does not materialise, one must now also be afraid of criminal proceedings, as in my case.

Every judge who takes a public stand and is involved in organisations to protect the rule of law and transparency is a thorn in the side of those in power.

Nevertheless, a part of the population supports the government's measures. Is the Polish judiciary in need of reform?

That the judiciary needs change has been talked about for thirty years. At the same time, however, the courts have always been a good whipping boy – and a law alone is not enough to change them.

But the voices from the practice are not heard by the politicians. They are not interested in reforming the judicial system, but in replacing staff on a grand scale. 

“I draw from the experience of the judges who resisted between 1981 and 1983 when martial law was declared in Poland”

Where do we go from here?

The PiS will try to complete the work it has started. There is talk of a “changed structure” of the judiciary. District and regional courts are to be introduced, which in turn would be a gateway for a mass “cleansing” of the judicial system.

What gives you hope?

I draw from the experience of the judges who resisted between 1981 and 1983 when martial law was declared in Poland to crush the democratic movement of that time.

Today, this spirit is much more widespread. Remembering that you can oppose the actions of politicians as a judiciary gives meaning to what we do.

Translated by Janina Sachse and Jess Smee