By Anna Wlodarczak-Semczuk
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 was seeking to end the mandate of a staunch government critic.
After the nationalist Law and Justice (PiS) party won 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 subverting democratic checks and balances. PiS denies this.
The European Commission expressed concern over the verdict.
"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," 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 Bodnar would stay in his post for three months as an interim solution.
The lower house of parliament appointed PiS's candidate, Bartlomiej Wroblewski, to succeed Bodnar on Thursday evening. His candidacy is expected to be rejected by the opposition-ruled upper house.
Wroblewski led the motion to further limit abortion rights, which the tribunal ruled to do late last year.
Bodnar's activities came into focus this week when a Warsaw court halted the purchase of several local newspapers from a German owner by state-backed refiner PKN Orlen following an appeal by Bodnar.
Opposition parties have said the takeover - approved by competition watchdog UOKiK and completed by PKN earlier this year - is part of a wider effort to increase government control of the media.
(Reporting by Anna Wlodarczak-Semczuk, Pawel Florkiewicz, Joanna Plucinska and Alicja Ptak, writing by Alan Charlish, Editing by William Maclean, Gareth Jones and Nick Macfie)