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Polish court rules ombudsman must leave office at term end

WARSAW, Poland (AP) — Poland’s top court ruled Thursday that the country's human rights commissioner can't remain in the job indefinitely after the end of his term until a successor is chosen. The ruling by the government-controlled Constitutional Tribunal paves the way for the removal of the acting human rights commissioner, or ombudsman, Adam Bodnar, who is unpopular with the conservative government.

Bodnar's term ended in September, and lawmakers had been unable for months to agree on a new candidate. But later Thursday the lower chamber of parliament approved ruling party lawmaker Bartlomiej Wroblewski, as Bodnar's successor. He still needs approval from the Senate, where the opposition has a narrow majority.

Wroblewski, a lawyer, said his main concern would be for people excluded and discriminated against, like the disabled, the elderly, retirees, people with housing problems and underpaid women. The decision by the court, which has been controlled by the governing Law and Justice party almost since it took power in 2015, is a boon to the party in its bid to control state institutions — from the judiciary to the media — and remove officials who could block its decisions.

It comes shortly after Bodnar's office obtained a court suspension of the government's long-planned takeover of Polska Presse, a large private media group. Bodnar argued that through the takeover, politicians could control the work of the media and the content it offered.

Poland’s ruling party has been seeking to oust Bodnar, but it has been locked in a stalemate with the opposition over the choice of his successor. Bodnar had been appointed with the backing of parties now in opposition.

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 in-between terms," and the protection of human rights in Poland. "A successor must urgently be selected fully respecting the Polish Constitution and law and international standards,” Mijatovic added.

The ombudsman’s office is an independent institution that safeguards the civil rights of individuals, can represent them in disputes with government authorities and obtain reversals of some state decisions.

The key judge in the case, pushing for the verdict, was Stanislaw Piotrowicz, a communist-era prosecutor who became a leading figure in the government's moves to control the justice system. “A prosecutor of the (communist-time) martial law is now speaking for the ruling party. It's an exceptionally vicious joke of history,” opposition Civic Platform party official Agnieszka Pomaska said on Twitter.

“Zero surprise. A ruling party court handed down a verdict in the party's interest ... Another sad day for Poland,” tweeted Szymon Holownia, leader of the opposition Poland2050 party, a rising centrist political movement.

The Constitutional Tribunal said the verdict will take effect three months after publication, which took place Thursday.

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