Polish court ruling to determine fate of human rights office

Poland’s constitutional court has been asked to issue a ruling expected to determine the fate…

Poland’s constitutional court has been asked to issue a ruling expected to determine the fate of one of the last state bodies that has kept its independence from the populist right-wing government

WARSAW, Poland — Poland’s constitutional court is considering a ruling that will determine the fate of one of the last state bodies that has kept its independence from the populist right-wing government.

The constitutional court, which was scheduled to issue a ruling Tuesday affecting the Human Rights Commissioner’s office, said it had to postpone its session because of the illness of one judge. A new date was not yet set.

Since the populist party, Law and Justice, won power in 2015, it has taken control of almost all state institutions, putting its patriotic, conservative stamp on museums and cultural institutes and turning state media into a propaganda arm of government. Most controversially, it has put its loyalists at the helm of top courts and judicial bodies, in some cases violating the law to do so.

The European Union has repeatedly warned that Poland’s erosion of judicial independence represents a serious setback to the rule of law in the country.

To date, however, the human rights commissioner, or ombudsman, a top civil servant whose role is to defend individuals facing threats to their civil rights, has acted with independence.

Adam Bodnar, a human rights lawyer, was nominated shortly before Law and Justice took office in 2015. He has used his role to defend a wide range of groups, including farmers and tenants who have seen their rights violated and people with disabilities deprived of benefits.

He has also challenged some of the ruling party’s changes to the judiciary as well as anti-LGBT language that he considers a violation of constitutional protections against discrimination.

Bodnar told The Associated Press in an interview Monday that he has sought to do his job impartially, and noted that many times he has defended Law and Justice policies that have sought to reduce income inequalities and help families.

“I am proud that in these five years I have managed to show that rights belong to everybody in this country,” he said. “And that the role of this institution is to be close to the people and to protect them in all different circumstances.”

Yet the fact that he has criticized government policies that he views as violations of constitutional rights has made him anathema to the government.

Bodnar’s five-year term formally ended on Sept. 9, but he remains in his job because political divisions have blocked the appointment of a successor.

The ombudsman must be chosen by both the lower house of parliament, where the Law and Justice-led right-wing coalition has a majority, and the Senate, where the opposition has a razor-thin majority.

The lower house has so far refused to consider the only proposed candidate, Zuzanna Rudzinska-Bluszcz, a lawyer who has worked in Bodnar’s office who is supported by about 1,000 civil rights and other non-governmental organizations.

Meanwhile, ruling party lawmakers have asked the Constitutional Tribunal to overthrow the law that allows Bodnar to remain until a successor is chosen. The court — filled with ruling party appointees — is considered likely to issue a ruling forcing Bodnar out when it eventually rules.

If it does, that would open the way for a new procedure allowing Law and Justice to take control of the office, bypassing the need for the Senate’s approval, perhaps by appointing an acting ombudsman who could remain in place for years.

European Commission Vice President Vera Jourova, in charge of values and transparency, tweeted Tuesday that the EU is “closely following” the matter.

“It’s of paramount importance to ensure that the institution defending citizens’ rights remains independent and its effective operation is preserved,” Jourova said.

Bodnar said his biggest fear is that the institution could “redefine rights” in a way that would offer less protection to vulnerable groups.

Laurent Pech, a professor of European law at Middlesex University in London who has been a sharp critic of the judicial changes in Poland, said that “the unconstitutional capture of the Polish Ombudsman’s office” would complete “Poland’s slow-motion constitutional coup d’etat.”

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