Polish tribunal rules European rights court cannot question its judges

EU and Poland's flags flutter at the Orlen refinery in Mazeikiai

WARSAW (Reuters) -Poland's Constitutional Tribunal said on Wednesday that the European Court of Human Rights had no power to question its appointment of judges, rejecting a ruling by Europe's top human rights court in May.

Dismissed by critics as a politicised body, the Constitutional Tribunal has already sparked a crisis in the European Union this year by ruling that parts of the bloc's treaties are incompatible with the Polish constitution.

"Article 6 of the Convention ... as far as it includes the Constitutional Tribunal in its definition of a court, is not compatible," with the Polish constitution, said judge Julia Przylebska, the head of the Tribunal.

She said the article was unconstitutional in as far as it gave the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) the right to assess the legality of the appointment of the Tribunal's judges.

In May the ECHR ruled that a company had been denied its right to a proper hearing due to the illegal appointment of a Constitutional Tribunal judge.

In Wednesday's ruling, the Tribunal said it was not a court under the Convention as it controls the hierarchy of laws and does not rule on individuals' rights.

The European Convention on Human Rights applies to members of the Council of Europe, an organisation which was formed after World War Two to protect human rights and the rule of law. The Council of Europe is separate from the European Union.

"All 47 Council of Europe member states, including Poland, have undertaken to secure the rights and freedoms set out in the European Convention on Human Rights, as interpreted by the ECHR. Member states are also obliged to implement the European Court’s judgments," the secretary general of the Council of Europe, Marija Pejcinovic Buric said.

"Today’s judgment from the Polish Constitutional Tribunal is unprecedented and raises serious concerns. We will carefully assess the judgment’s reasoning and its effects."

Poland has been embroiled in a long-running conflict with the European Union over its judicial reforms, which the bloc says undermine the independence of the courts.

The incoming German government signalled on Wednesday that it may take a harder stance on rule of law issues, saying in its coalition agreement that the European Commission should better implement existing rule of law instruments and rulings of European courts.

Poland's nationalist government says its judicial reforms are intended to sweep away remnants of communist influence and bring to heel judges who think they are above the law. A cabinet minister welcomed the Tribunal's ruling on Wednesday.

"Today, the rule of law has won over the usurpation of competences," Michal Wojcik wrote on Twitter.

(Reporting by Anna Wlodarczak-Semczuk and Alan Charlish; Editing by Jon Boyle and Toby Chopra)