WARSAW (Reuters) - Poland's Constitutional Tribunal ruled on Thursday that the human rights ombudsman be removed from his post, drawing opposition accusations that the court sought to illegally end the mandate of a staunch government critic.
After the nationalist Law and Justice (PiS) came to power in 2015, Adam Bodnar emerged as a leading defender of liberal values such as women's and minority rights, as well as judicial independence, which critics say are under threat from PiS.
His five-year term ended in September, but parliament could not agree on a replacement, with the lower and upper houses controlled, respectively, by the government and the opposition.
In its ruling, the Tribunal said the legislation that stipulates that in such cases the ombudsman stays in office until lawmakers pick a new one was unconstitutional.
"The term is clearly defined and its extension is unacceptable," it said in a statement.
Critics say the Tribunal is part of sweeping judiciary reforms conducted by PiS which the European Union has branded as subversive of democratic checks and balances. PiS denies this.
The European Commission expressed concern on Thursday over the Tribunal verdict on the ombudsman.
"It is of paramount importance to ensure that this institution, which defends citizens' rights and plays an important role in upholding the rule of law, remains independent, that its activity is not hindered and that its effective operation is preserved," Commission spokesman Christian Wigand told a regular news briefing.
Bodnar urged lawmakers to decide quickly on his successor, saying PiS could otherwise appoint a commissioner, turning the post into one not sufficiently independent from the government.
The Tribunal said on Thursday Bodnar would stay in his post for three months as an interim solution. A vote on a new candidate was due on Thursday evening.
Bodnar's activities came into focus earlier this week when a Warsaw court halted the purchase of several local newspapers from a German owner by state-backed energy group PKN Orlen following an appeal by Bodnar.
Opposition political parties have said the takeover - approved by competition watchdog UOKiK and completed by PKN earlier this year - is part of the government's wider efforts to increase its control of the media.
(Reporting by Anna Wlodarczak-Semczuk, Pawel Florkiewicz and Joanna Plucinska, writing by Alan Charlish, Editing by William Maclean and Gareth Jones)