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On Thursday, Poland’s Constitutional Tribunal ruled a specific article of the Act on the Commissioner for Human Rights to be unlawful. The article allows the Ombudsman to perform his duties after the end of his term in a situation when the parliament has not yet elected his successor. The decision, initiated by the ruling camp, means that the independent Ombudsman Adam Bodnar will be effectively removed from office in three months.
Although the term of the current Ombudsman expired in September of last year, because both houses of the Polish Parliament could not yet agree on his replacement, Mr. Bodnar has remained in office.
Shortly after the Court’s decision, in the evening, the Parliament has already nominated Bartłomiej Wróblewski, a member of the ruling party, as Mr. Bodnar’s successor. However, his candidacy still needs to be confirmed by the Senate, where the opposition has the majority. The Senate has so far rejected all the ruling camp’s proposals, and members of PiS warned that if this scenario repeats itself, they will amend the Act on the Commissioner for Human Rights and appoint someone who will perform the Ombudsman’s duties until a new one is finally elected.
According to unconfirmed reports, Mr. Bodnar’s temporary successor is supposed to be appointed by the President himself.
Commenting on the Constitutional Tribunal’s decision to remove Mr. Bodnar from office, European Commission Vice President Vera Jourová tweeted: "We are following closely and with concern the developments relating to the Polish Ombudsman. 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".
The Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, Dunja Mijatović, has also taken a stance on the developments surrounding the Polish Ombudsman. She warned that the Constitutional Tribunal’s decision might soon leave Poland without a Commissioner for Human Rights altogether. "A successor must urgently be selected fully respecting the Polish Constitution and law & international standards" – she urged.
"Another blow for democracy in Poland"
The Constitutional Court’s decision has also been widely criticized by members of the European Parliament. In an interview with the Parliament Magazine, a German member of the Greens/EFA, Terry Reintke, called the ruling "another attack on the protection of fundamental rights in Poland, and yet another reason for the Commission to step up the defense of rule of law and EU citizens’ rights”.
The Socialists and Democrats Group called the verdict "another blow for democracy in Poland".
“The PiS-controlled Constitution Tribunal shamelessly ruled to remove Adam Bodnar, independent human rights Ombudsman, from office in max 3 months. We commend Bodnar’s brave work for citizens' rights & the rule of law. The European Commission must react" – the S&D Group wrote in a statement on Twitter.
The Group also said that in a Thursday meeting of the EU Parliament’s Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs, Committee chair Juan Fernando López Aguilar urged the Commission to initiate an infringement procedure and refer Poland to the European Court of Justice over the composition of the PiS-controlled Constitutional Tribunal.
"The European Commission should break its silence and take action"
Human Rights Watch (HRW), an international NGO investigating and reporting on human rights abuses, has also published a statement regarding Mr. Bodnar’s case. According to the organization, the removal of Poland’s Human Rights Ombudsman is "likely spelling the end of one of the last independent checks on the country’s abusive government".
"The Bodnar case is yet another example of Poland’s assault on the rule of law. Since 2015, the government has politicized judicial appointments, refused to implement judgments and severely undermined the Constitutional Tribunal’s independence and effectiveness [...] With the courts compromised, the Ombudsman’s office under Bodnar has been one of a few remaining checks on the executive".
The organization also pointed out that the European Commission has so far refrained from taking any decisive steps in reaction to the erosion of rule of law and restriction of women’s reproductive rights in Poland.
"The European Commission should break its silence and take action. It’s time to tackle the use of the Tribunal to bypass Poland’s parliament and erode fundamental rights, and press EU states to act”.
Deputy Minister of Justice: Adam Bodnar is politically biased
It remains unclear how the ruling camp will respond to the mounting international criticism. So far, Ms. Jourová’s Tweet has only provoked a reaction from the Deputy Minister of Justice, Marcin Romanowski.
"Dear @VeraJourova, I'm kindly asking you to refrain from continued manipulation by means of legal terms. In Poland, we believe that Ombudsman's role is to safeguard the rights of all citizens. Not to promote a certain ideology or political agenda”- he wrote.
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