Polish court rules ombudsman must leave office at term end

·2 min read

WARSAW, Poland — Poland’s top court ruled Thursday that it is unconstitutional for the country's human rights commissioner to remain in the job indefinitely after the end of his term until a successor is chosen.

The ruling by the government-controlled constitutional Tribunal paves the way for the removal of the acting human rights commissioner, or ombudsman, Adam Bodnar, who is unpopular with the conservative government.

Bodnar's term ended in September, and lawmakers were due to try again later Thursday to choose his replacement among candidates proposed by political parties.

The decision by the court, which has been controlled by the governing Law and Justice party almost since it took power in 2015, is a boon to the party in its bid to control state institutions — from the judiciary to the media — and remove officials who could block its decisions.

It comes shortly after Bodnar's office obtained a court suspension of the government's long-planned takeover of Polska Presse, a large private media group. Bodnar argued that through the takeover, politicians could control the work of the media and the content it offered.

Poland’s ruling party has been critical of Bodnar and seeking to oust him, but it has been locked in a stalemate with the opposition over the choice of his successor. Bodnar had been appointed to his post with the backing of parties now in opposition.

Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, Dunja Mijatovic said Thursday's court decision “creates a worrying gap in the functioning of the ombudsman institution in-between terms," and the protection of human rights in Poland. "A successor must urgently be selected fully respecting the Polish Constitution and law and international standards,” Mijatovic added.

The ombudsman’s office is an independent institution that safeguards the civil rights of individuals, can represent them in disputes with government authorities and obtain reversals of some state decisions.

The key judge in the case, pushing for the verdict, was Stanislaw Piotrowicz, a communist-era prosecutor who became a leading figure in the government's moves to control the justice system.

“A prosecutor of the (communist-time) martial law is now speaking for the ruling party. It's an exceptionally vicious joke of history,” opposition Civic Platform party official Agnieszka Pomaska said on Twitter.

“Zero surprise. A ruling party court handed down a verdict in the party's interest ... Another sad day for Poland,” tweeted Szymon Holownia, leader of the opposition Poland2050 party, a rising centrist political movement.

The constitutional Tribunal said the verdict will take effect three months after publication, urging lawmakers to amend the law during that time.

Bodnar said the ruling meant that either the ruling party and the opposition must find a compromise and agree on a new ombudsman, or the government will appoint a kind of “commissar" who would not be a true human rights commissioner, a scenario that he said would not guarantee the institution's independence.

Monika Scislowska, The Associated Press