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Polish government moves to increase parliament's powers over judiciary

WARSAW (Reuters) - The Polish government approved on Tuesday a draft bill that would give parliament a bigger say on the appointment of judges, a move the country's top judiciary council and ombudsman said would violate the constitutional separation of powers.

Despite calls from judges and rights activists, the opposition has been unable to organize any meaningful public protest against the bill so far, reflecting Poles' frustration with a system in which even simple court cases can last years.

"Society needs to exert control over all powers," Deputy Justice Minister Marcin Warchol told reporters, referring to the legislative, executive and judicial arms of the state.

"Courts are one of the three powers, not a superior power, which is reserved for citizens, for the nation," he said.

If approved by parliament and signed into law by the president, the bill would end the terms of the National Council of the Judiciary's (KRS) current members and give parliament powers to choose 15 of its 25 members.

The Council has broad powers to nominate judges. Its members are currently mostly selected by the judges themselves for four-year terms.

Since winning a 2015 election, the nationalist-minded ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party has brought the prosecutor's office and public media under direct government control.

The party also overhauled the constitutional court, passing legislation that made it more difficult for it to block new legislation. The overhaul has led the European Union's executive arm to accuse the government in Warsaw of undermining democratic checks and balances, charges PiS denies.

The KRS said in a statement the bill would violate the constitution and "constitute a real danger to the rule of law as well as human and citizens' rights and freedoms".

The leader of PiS, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, who holds no government position but is seen by analysts as the most important decision-maker in Poland, has said changes are needed to free judges from a "judiciary establishment" he says is able to decide on their careers and selection to particular cases.

Ombudsman Adam Bodnar called on Poles to support judges against the planned changes, which he said were aimed at subordinating the top judiciary council to politicians.

"I repeat: today the judges need our support, the support of society. We should not leave them alone at the mercy of politicians," Bodnar said.

(Reporting by Marcin Goettig; Editing by Gareth Jones)