Poland’s Top Watchdog Removed at Government’s Behest

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Adam Bodnar, the outgoing Human Rights Commission for Poland, speaks to The Associated Press from his office in Warsaw, Poland, October 19, 2020.
© 2020 AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski, File

A government-captured court has removed Poland’s Human Rights Ombudsmen Adam Bodnar from his post, likely spelling the end of one of last independent checks on the country’s abusive government.

The battle for the future of the Ombudsman has been going on for months. When Bodnar’s mandate ended in September, the law provided that he should stay in office until a successor is appointed.

But the candidate proposed by Poland’s ruling party, Law-and-Justice, was rejected by the Polish Senate. To break this stalemate, the party used the coopted Constitutional Tribunal to rule that the continuity provision was unconstitutional and shouldn’t be applied anymore. Today the tribunal ordered Bodnar be removed from his position.

This is the same court that carried out the government’s wishes in October and eliminated one of few grounds for abortion when the government could not get legislation to do so through parliament.

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 judgements 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. His removal comes days after his office blocked the take-over of news-agency Polska Press by a state-owned oil company – a move that would have further reduced media pluralism.

EU institutions know how bad the situation is. In December 2017, when it triggered Article 7 – the mechanism handling countries breaching EU values – the European Commission quoted the lack of independence of constitutional review. In September 2020, it noted that “concerns over the independence and legitimacy of the Constitutional Tribunal” remain unresolved. But in practice the Commission has so far done little to respond to the erosion of the rule of law and failed to address the government’s use of a compromised court to roll back women’s rights.

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.