The protests took place on Thursday night to oppose a controversial law that would give the government complete control over the Supreme Court.
Opposition lawmakers and celebrities joined the protesters in front of the Presidential Palace in Warsaw as the crowd held up candles, waved national and European Union flags, and chanted “free courts” and “democracy.”
While Warsaw police estimated the number of the protesters to be at 14,000, the city hall put the figure at 50,000.
The protesters in the capital later marched to the parliament building, where a Senate commission was debating the Supreme Court law ahead of a Friday session at the Senate.
Critics of the government’s move to overhaul the judiciary say the Supreme Court legislation and two earlier bills would destroy judicial independence and threaten the country’s democracy.
Poland’s Prime Minister Beata Szydlo appeared on national television to defend the planned changes in the legal system. In the speech, Szydlo said that the move had been prompted by public criticism of the judiciary’s inefficiency, blaming the public outcry it has incited on the opposition’s “frustration.”
She said the government will not bow to pressure “from Polish or from foreign defenders of the interest of the elites,” in an apparent reference to the EU, which had threatened to impose sanctions against Poland if the legislation was ratified.
The president of the European Council, Donald Tusk, who is a former prime minister of Poland, has also appealed to Polish President Andrzej Duda for a meeting to seek ways out of the situation, which he said goes against EU values and is destructive to Poland’s international image.
Legislators voted to approve the controversial Supreme Court legislation on Thursday. While critics agree that the judiciary needs reform, they insist that the proposed changes are going in the wrong direction.
Earlier on Thursday, a smaller group of protesters kicked metal barriers that separated them from the parliament, chanting “Shame!” to express their anger at the legislators.