Home Europe Polish police arrest MPs in presidential palace as rule-of-law battle heats up

Polish police arrest MPs in presidential palace as rule-of-law battle heats up

by editor

In a dramatic escalation of Poland’s battle to restore rule of law, the police entered the country’s presidential palace on Tuesday evening and took two MPs into custody who had been hiding under the protection of President Andrzej Duda after being sentenced to prison terms for abuse of power.

The arrests cut to the heart of a fight between Duda and new Prime Minister Donald Tusk, who is seeking to unravel eight years of rule by the nationalist, conservative Law and Justice Party (PiS), rooting the previous administration’s loyalists out of key institutions like the media, courts and state-owned corporations.

Duda is aligned with PiS and still has considerable ability to thwart Tusk’s attempts at reform. The case of two convicted PiS lawmakers — Mariusz Kamiński and Maciej Wąsik — enjoying presidential protection rapidly turned into a defining battle of wills between the two camps, until the cops finally swooped.

“In accordance with the court’s order, the persons concerned by the orders were detained,” the police said.

The tussle over the MPs’ fate highlights the new government’s huge problem in unpicking the mess made of the country’s justice system by PiS. Tusk’s new administration, which unexpectedly won the election in October, wants to reshape the country to bring it back into line with the EU’s democratic rules — unlocking billions in frozen EU funds and again making Warsaw a European power player.

Earlier on Tuesday, Szymon Hołownia, speaker of parliament, called the situation around the fugitive MPs a “deep constitutional crisis,” while Tusk recited the criminal code penalties for hiding people wanted by the police.

“Maybe it’s even a good thing that this whole crisis happened, because everyone can see what kind of mess PiS, unfortunately, hand-in-hand with President Duda, has led to by ‘reforming’ the Polish justice system,” Hołownia said.

Duda insists he pardoned the two in 2015 during their trial for using fake documents in a 2007 attempt to incriminate the coalition allies of Law and Justice. PiS was hoping to destroy the smaller coalition party and absorb its MPs to allow it to rule alone — but the effort blew up into a scandal that collapsed the government.

Kamiński was then the head of the Central Anticorruption Bureau and Wąsik was his deputy.

Disputed verdict

In 2017, Poland’s Supreme Court ruled that the presidential pardon was ineffective as it was granted before a final verdict in the case and kicked the matter back to a lower court, which convicted the two in December and sentenced them to two years in prison. However, the Constitutional Tribunal, another top court that’s controlled by PiS loyalists, issued its own ruling finding that the pardon was in order.

Kamiński and Wąsik ignored the verdict sentencing them to jail.

“We do not acknowledge it, it is not a judgment for us; it is a total lawlessness,” Kamiński said after the court ruling, while Wąsik said: “We do not feel guilty, we do not feel convicted. We have been properly pardoned by the president.”

Szymon Hołownia called the situation around the fugitive MPs a “deep constitutional crisis” | Radek Pietruszka/EFE via EPA

But Hołownia has said that the two are no longer MPs, pointing to a legal provision barring people with convictions from serving in parliament, and said he will prevent them from taking part in legislative sessions.

The two refused to accept that, and threatened to make their way into the legislative chamber for a session scheduled for Wednesday, prompting Hołownia to shift the session to next week.

“There is no guarantee that this week, so hectic, fraught with all sorts of settlements, decisions, brawls, reports, will run smoothly,” Hołownia said.

The courts aren’t making his task any easier.

A few days ago, one chamber in Poland’s Supreme Court — whose independence has been questioned by European courts and some of whose judges have been appointed in a way that critics say violated Polish law — found that Hołownia was wrong to rule that the two were no longer MPs. But another chamber of the Supreme Court, this one recognized by other courts, is due to issue its own ruling on Wednesday.

Meanwhile, the court that convicted Kamiński and Wąsik issued a letter to the police calling for the two to be taken to prison.

However, Duda invited them to his palace in the center of Warsaw.

On Tuesday afternoon, they walked outside to make a brief comment to reporters before heading back into the ornate columned building.

“There is a very serious crisis of the state. A grim dictatorship is forming. We cannot allow political prisoners in Poland,” Kamiński said.

The police swoop in

However, in the evening, Duda left the building to meet with Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, and the police moved in during his absence.

“The rule of law is finally working,” tweeted Michał Szczerba, an MP with the Civic Coalition, one of the parties making up the new government.

But the supporters of Kamiński and Wąsik denounced their arrests as illegal.

Beata Szydło called them “the first political prisoners of the Tusk regime” | Piotr Polak/EFE via EPA

Beata Szydło, a former PiS prime minister, called them “the first political prisoners of the Tusk regime.”

Duda can free them from prison, but he’d have to issue another pardon — which so far he has refused to do.

“My position is clear: The presidential prerogative was effectively exercised in 2015, the men were pardoned. This closed the case in a definitive manner. The men have parliamentary seats,” Duda said earlier this week.

However, even if he does so, Hołownia insists that they’d still have a conviction on their records, making them ineligible to serve as MPs.

The fight over Kamiński and Wąsik is part of a wider war as Tusk and his government try to take control of institutions in the hands of PiS loyalists, while setting up special commissions to investigate and prosecute wrongdoing by the former government.

“A lot depends on the determination of the new government and how far it will go run restoring Poland to the rule of law,” said Jakub Jaraczewski, a researcher at Democracy Reporting International, an NGO.

The government last month bent the rules and seized control of the state media, which had become the propaganda arm of PiS. That led to a furious reaction from PiS loyalists, with Duda promising to veto a spending bill and lawsuits being filed with courts favorable to the former ruling party.

“Did anyone really think we were in for a light, easy and pleasant job? No, it will be hard, difficult and unpleasant for a while. That’s what you hired me for. I’m not complaining,” Tusk tweeted last week.

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