No, Poland doesn’t have any ‘political prisoners’

Poland’s President Andrzej Duda this week claimed that for the first time since what he dubbed ‘the dark days of totalitarian rule’, Poland has political prisoners. It doesn’t. 

Anyone thinking that the Polish political scene would be a more peaceful, less antagonistic place following the return of Donald Tusk in December to the prime minister’s office was dealt a severe blow this week when two serving MPs were arrested, unleashing what has already become a serious constitutional crisis. 

The short version of the week’s events is rather simple. On January 9, the two MPs—both members of the former ruling party, Law and Justice (PiS)—were arrested by police at the country’s presidential palace. The pair had been convicted last year of abuse of office offences committed in 2007 when they were part of an anti-corruption unit. Both men, stripped of their parliamentary immunity, are now in prison serving their sentences. 

The long version is rather more complicated, and a demonstration of the challenges facing Poland’s new government as it seeks to undo eight years of state capture by PiS. 

The two MPs, former Interior Minister Mariusz Kamiński and his former deputy Maciej Wąsik, were originally convicted of abuse of office in 2015 for allowing agents under their command to use entrapment in an investigation. They denied wrongdoing and were pardoned by President Andrzej Duda later in 2015—not long after Duda had begun his first term as Poland’s president. His second term ends next year. 

Duda’s pardon, however, was subsequently challenged in Poland’s supreme court on the grounds that it had been granted before a final appeal court ruling. The court ruled that the pardons were not valid and ordered a retrial. The two men were then convicted again in December 2023—shortly after Tusk took office. 

Warrants for their arrest were issued on January 9. Both men were offered refuge in the presidential palace as police went to their homes to arrest them. They were arrested inside the palace and taken to prison, where Kamiński called himself a “political prisoner” and said that he would begin a hunger strike. 

On the evening of January 11, tens of thousands of PiS supporters protested outside Poland’s parliament demanding the release of the two MPs. PiS leader Jarosław Kaczyński told the crowd that the new government is implementing a “European plan” to “liquidate our homeland as a state” and “subordinate” it. 

“We are defending Poland against the return of German imperialism and against this ideological misery,” he said. 

‘Deep constitutional crisis’ 

The previous day, President Duda had said that he was “shocked” by the arrests, and in a press conference echoed Kamiński by saying that, “For the first time since the dark days of totalitarian rule, we have political prisoners in Poland”. He also said that he would begin proceedings to again pardon the two men.  

A member of Tusk’s cabinet later said that the government would not stand in the way of any legal move to pardon the two. 

“The courts decide, and such convicts are no different from thousands of other convicts every month in Poland,” Tomasz Siemoniak, who is also the coordinator of Poland’s special services, told the news agency Reuters. “If they are legally pardoned, of course no one will oppose it.” 

Importantly, Tusk’s coalition, which includes his own Civic Platform as well as the Left and Third Way parties, appears to be united on the issue—for now. Indeed, it was Third Way leader Szymon Hołownia, the speaker of Poland’s parliament, who ordered that the two MPs be expelled from parliament in order to allow their arrest.  

Hołownia has said that Duda’s support for the MPs risks creating “a deep constitutional crisis”. 

We may already be there. 

Besides applying to Poland’s courts for new pardons, Duda has suggested that he will use his presidential veto to block all legislation passed by parliament in the absence of the two imprisoned MPs. Duda has already acted against Tusk by delaying the formation of his government for more than a month, and has threatened to dissolve parliament and call a snap election if legislators fail to pass a budget by the end of January.

Duda has also sided with PiS in a row over Poland’s state-run TV broadcaster, TVP. Tusk had pledged during the parliamentary election campaign last year to dismantle state television, claiming that it was little more than a mouthpiece for PiS. 

On December 20, TVP’s news channel, TVP Info, was briefly taken off air after the country’s Culture Ministry sacked its management team and installed a new one. On January 10, a court rejected the changes to TVP’s management, ruling that they had been made illegally. 

Making life difficult 

Duda’s opposition to Tusk’s government places huge doubt on its ability to deliver its main campaign pledge to unfreeze billions of euros in EU funding. On December 15, the EU released some five billion euros, a small fraction of the 60 billion euros withheld from the nation amid concerns over the PiS government’s respect for the rule of law. 

Tusk had promised during the election campaign that his government would secure the release of all funding “on day one”. 

However, the EU has made it clear that the bulk of the money—both grants and loans—can only be released once Warsaw rolls back judicial reforms the European Commission has said have limited the independence of judges. 

Duda and his PiS allies, many of whom hold senior positions in Poland’s courts, look set to ensure that roll back is made as difficult as possible.

Photo: Donald Tusk at a recent meeting of the European Council. © European Union

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