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Poland’s president approves law on Russia’s influence that could target opposition

WARSAW, Poland (AP) — Polish President Andrzej Duda said Monday he would sign a bill that creates a powerful commission, ostensibly meant to investigate Russian influence in Poland but which critics view as a tool to remove from political life the opponents of the ruling party — mostly notably opposition leader Donald Tusk.

Parliament on Friday approved the law, which was proposed by the conservative Law and Justice ruling party, as the country heads towards a parliamentary election in the autumn.

Experts say that it violates the Polish Constitution and the opposition has called on Duda to reject it.

Duda said he was approving the bill because discussions on Russia’s influence on politics are being held in the U.S. and in some European countries. He said that a commission for investigating Russia’s influences on European institutions and in individual countries should also be formed at the European Union level. Poland will push for it at the next European Council session, he said.

He said transparency in public life is crucial and stressed that Poland has good experience in public commissions investigating key social and political matters.

“Transparency in clarifying important public and political matters is of tantamount importance to me,” Duda said in his address. “The public should form its own opinion on how its representatives are … taking care of its interests.”

The bill will take effect within a week of its publication.

Addressing concerns from critics, he insisted the bill doesn’t give the commission the power to eliminate anyone from public or political life. Bowing partially to critics who say the law is unconstitutional, Duda said he was also sending it to the Constitutional Tribunal to review the bill for conformity with the supreme law.

U.S. Ambassador Mark Brzezinski said that Washington was “well aware of the concerns expressed by many regarding this law. And we fully appreciate and understand why President Duda forwarded this bill to the Constitutional Tribunal to ascertain whether these concerns render the law unconstitutional.”

Brzezinski said on TVN24 that the U.S. government “shares concerns” about laws that negatively affect the ability of Poles to vote for candidates of their own choice.

The opposition in Poland reacted with strong criticism.

Tusk, who is to lead a pro-democracy march in Warsaw on Sunday, tweeted at Duda, saying “Mr. President, let me invite you for public consultation on June 4. It will be easy to hear and see us from the windows of your palace.”

Warsaw Mayor Rafal Trzaskowski, a member of Tusk’s Civic Coalition, tweeted that “they (the ruling party) want to probe alleged ‘Russian influences’ based on a kind of ‘law’ that Moscow would not be ashamed of. And the president signs it.”

“This is another proof that that the best antidote to ‘Russian influences’ in Poland would be to remove this team from power. Let’s do it (in elections) this fall,” Trzaskowski tweeted.

Tusk has said the opposition has a strategy ready for dealing with the commission and that the ruling party will “regret it.”

The law would establish a state commission for investigating Russian influence in Poland and on national security with the powers of prosecutor and judge. It will present a report on its findings by Sept. 17, just weeks before the election — expected in October or November — and could impose punishments, including 10-year bans on officials from positions that have control over spending public funds.

However, the commission’s decisions can be appealed to a court and wouldn’t take effect until there is a court verdict, according to government spokesman Piotr Mueller.

It is generally seen as targeting Tusk, a former prime minister who is now the leader of the main opposition Civic Coalition, at a time when early campaigning for the election is underway.

Law and Justice accuses Tusk of having been too friendly toward Russia as prime minister between 2007 and 2014 and making gas deals favorable to Russia before he went to Brussels to be the president of the European Council between 2014 and 2019.

Party leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski and Tusk are longtime political rivals.

Critics say the investigative commission, with powers to ban people from public positions and to reverse administrative and business decisions, would violate citizens’ right to face an independent court and is a clear example of how Law and Justice has been using legislation to its own ends ever since coming to power in 2015.

They view the bill, which critics have dubbed “Lex Tusk,” as an attempt to create a powerful and unconstitutional tool that would help Law and Justice continue to wield power even if it loses control of the parliament in the election.

The review that Duda requested from the Constitutional Tribunal may be long in coming, because the court is stalled by internal conflicts that have prevented it from reaching the required quorum on some occasions. A law proposed by the ruling party to lower the quorum is currently in parliament.

The government’s policies, especially in the judicial system, have already put Warsaw at odds with the EU, which says they go against the principles of rule of law and democracy. The latest legislation could add to the rift.

The pro-democracy march that Tusk will lead in Warsaw on Sunday, intended to mobilize the opposition electorate, comes on the anniversary of the partly free parliamentary election in 1989 that led to the ouster of communism.

Monika Scislowska, The Associated Press

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