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Poland’s Senate confirms new ombudsman after long standoff

July 21, 2021 GMT

WARSAW, Poland (AP) — Poland’s Senate endorsed a human rights lawyer Wednesday as the nation’s next ombudsman, ending months of political tug-of-war over the sensitive position.

In a vote facilitated by the right-wing ruling party waiving its objections, senators overwhelmingly approved Marcin Wiacek to be the country’s next human rights commissioner - an independent role that the conservative government would like to control.

Lawmakers in the lower house of Poland’s divided parliament, the Sejm, approved Wiacek’s appointment earlier this month in the chamber’s sixth vote on an issue that for months drove a wedge between the ruling party and the opposition, creating a stalemate.

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

The Senate’s confirmation came after the ruling Law and Justice party withdrew its reservations about Wiacek. Four other candidates had been rejected, one of them twice.

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Wiacek, 39, heads the human rights department at Warsaw University. He succeeds Adam Bodnar, who was unpopular with the government for raising issues with it and trying to block some of its decisions.

Bodnar’s statutory term expired in September but he stayed on as no successor had been named. A ruling from Poland’s Constitutional Court, where the government has placed many loyalists, ended Bodnar’s interim status last week.

In his first statement after the Senate’s approval, Wiacek described himself as an “independent” person who favors resolving the country’s disputes with the European Union. Poland joined the EU in 2004.

He said he supports heeding a recent ruling by the European Court of Justice ordering Poland to immediately suspend the activity of a new body charged with disciplining judges and prosecutors. The EU and critics in Poland say the Disciplinary Chamber, based at the Polish Supreme Court, undermines judicial independence because many of the cases considered there are against judges who are critical of the government.

“I believe that the Disciplinary Chamber should suspend its activity. We should carry out the EU court’s ruling as soon as possible,” Wiacek said.

But he also stressed that Poland’s Constitution is the nation’s supreme law. The Constitutional Court is expected to rule next month on whether the constitution takes precedence over EU treaties.

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This story has been corrected to say that the Supreme Court’s Disciplinary Chamber sanctions judges, not the parliament.