Poland’s top court hobbles human rights advocate

WARSAW — Poland’s human rights ombudsman — one of the few remaining independent institutions in the country — will have to vacate his post in three months under a ruling issued Thursday by the Constitutional Tribunal.

Ombudsman Adam Bodnar’s five-year term expired in September, but the ruling nationalist coalition government led by the Law and Justice (PiS) party has been unable to get a replacement approved by the opposition-controlled Senate.

Bodnar has been a thorn in the side of the government, pointing out backsliding on rule of law, democracy and freedom of the press — efforts that have inflamed Warsaw’s bad relations with the EU. He’s monitored police behavior during crackdowns against women protesting against tough new abortion rules, and called into question laws protecting politicians and religion from criticism.

“It’s not only about taking over the office of Ombudsman, but also to have an influence on how we interpret human rights,” Bodnar told the Onet news portal on Thursday, adding: “It seems to me that civil society will have to find a different way of filling the vacuum which may arise with the lack of an independent human rights advocate.”

The Constitutional Tribunal is under the control of the ruling party, after several judges were chosen in violation of the Polish constitution. The proceedings against Bodnar were led by Stanisław Piotrowicz, a former PiS MP and communist-era prosecutor who is now a justice on the tribunal. The court rejected Bodnar’s call for Piotrowicz to be excluded for bias and for another judge to be dropped because he was illegally appointed.

Věra Jourová, the Commission vice president in charge of values and transparency, said last month that she had written to the Polish authorities about Bodnar, telling a Polish newspaper that his office “was the last bastion that those wanting an honest assessment of their cases could count on.”

The ruling against Bodnar comes on the same day that an advocate general of the Court of the Justice of the EU issued an opinion finding that two new chambers of Poland’s Supreme Court may violate EU law.

Advocate General Evgeni Tanchev wrote that “a court chamber does not constitute an independent and impartial tribunal, within the meaning of EU law” if the way it was created and how its members were chosen gives “rise to legitimate doubts.” The CJEU is due to rule on the case, and doesn’t have to follow Tanchev’s reasoning.

It’s not the only rule of law issue before the court as the EU grapples with legal changes in both Poland and Hungary. In another case, involving a complaint that Hungary tried to muzzle a government-critical judge, Advocate General Priit Pikamäe said that rules allowing the Hungarian Supreme Court to prevent a lower court from asking the CJEU questions are incompatible with EU law, but declined to weigh in on other questions raised.

The CJEU has issued other rulings against the radical judicial reforms brought in by Poland’s PiS; the country is also under fire from the Commission and the European Parliament.

PiS argues that the reforms are needed to remove the vestiges of communism from the judicial system and other parts of Polish public life, while critics charge that the government is trying to bring most public institutions under the tight control of the ruling party.

Although Bodnar was a huge annoyance to the government, choices to replace him were unpalatable to the opposition and the issue of a successor has been deadlocked for months.

The Constitutional Tribunal ruled that a law saying that the ombudsman continues to stay in office until a replacement is chosen violates the constitution.

“The wave of comments that followed the decision shows that citizens understand very well what has happened,” Bodnar said. He added that Poland has been undergoing a “constitutional coup” since 2016, “when the political authorities in an illegal way took control these institutions.”

Lili Bayer and Hans von der Burchard contributed reporting

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