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16th Apr 2024

Polish court pushes out critical ombudsman

  • Polish ombudsman Adam Bodnar with EU Commission vice-president Vera Jourova last year in Warsaw (Photo: European Commission)

Poland's controversial Constitutional Tribunal ruled on Thursday (15 April) that the country's human rights ombudsman should be removed from his post in three months, in a move that is seen as another attempt by the Warsaw government to exert control over independent institutions.

The opposition said the move from the tribunal, which is seen as being government-controlled, aimed to remove one of the Warsaw government's most strident critics.

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Adam Bodnar has been a leading defender of women and minority rights, and has stood up for judicial independence, which has come under threat by the nationalist government led by Law and Justice (PiS).

His five-year term ended last September, but the two houses of parliament - one controlled by the government, the other by the opposition - could not agree on his replacement.

On Thursday, the tribunal said the legislation that sets out that, in such cases, the ombudsman stays in office until lawmakers pick a new one was unconstitutional.

The tribunal said Bodnar should stay in his post for three months, as an interim solution.

However, critics point out that the tribunal itself has been part of the sweeping judicial overhaul by PiS, and put under government control.

Warsaw has come under ongoing EU scrutiny, which has argued that PiS's "reforms" put judicial independence at risk, something the ruling party denies.

EU Commission vice-president Vera Jourova on Thursday tweeted that the bloc's executive is following the developments with "concern".

"It's of great importance to ensure that this institution, which defends citizens' rights and plays an important role for upholding the rule of law, remains independent," she added.

Thorn in side

Bodnar has long been a thorn in the side of the PiS-led government.

Bodnar's removal comes a day after a Warsaw court halted the purchase of several newspapers from a German owner by the state-owned oil refiner PKN Orlen company, following an appeal by Bodnar.

PKN's takeover of Polska Press, completed earlier this year, has attracted criticism and been seen as part of an attempt by the government to control the media in Poland.

Bodnar himself argued that, with the takeover, politicians could control the media and its content.

"The illegal authorities want to remove the ombudsman today. This is not an attack on the office, it is an attack on each of you," Donald Tusk, the president of the centre-right European People's Party (EPP) and himself a former Polish prime minister, said in a tweet.

The 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 ... and the protection of human rights in Poland".

Bodnar on Thursday appealed to all parties to agree on a common candidate soon, fearing the ruling party would nominate someone who will act as a "political commissar".

He has been a staunch opponent of the government's judicial overhaul, and last year, after a complaint by Bodnar's office, Polish courts annulled two of the so-called "zones free from LGBT ideology" that had been declared by some local authorities.

The EU and Poland have been locked into a legal battle over the government's judicial reforms, which has led to several court cases at the European level because of concerns over the rule of law in the country.

Also on Thursday, the EU's top court's advocate general said that Warsaw could be in breach of EU rules on how it appointed judges to two new chambers of the Supreme Court.

Last week, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) told Poland to suspend a panel created to discipline judges, saying it was not independent and breached EU law.

The commission has recently taken Poland to court over another issue: a law that both prevents Polish judges from referring matters of law to the ECJ and created a national body to rule on judges' independence.

"The dismissal of the mediator Adam Bodnar is unacceptable", the head of the liberal Renew group in the European Parliament, MEP Dacian Cioloş said.

"The relentless efforts of the Polish authorities to destroy the rule of law stone by stone is more evident than ever," he added.

"The Polish government seems intent on abolishing any semblance of a true justice system with highly-politicised pseudo 'verdicts', the persecution of judges and prosecutors and the refusal to implement rulings of the European Court of Justice", Slovak EPP MEP Vladimir Bilčík.

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