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29th Jun 2022

Tusk on trial? Poland opens new Smolensk inquiry

  • The 'mystical' crash took place in the same spot as the Katyn massacre (Photo: Piotr Pawlowski)

The Polish government has launched a new inquest into the 2010 Smolensk air crash, in proceedings which could see EU Council president and former Polish PM Donald Tusk put on trial.

The Polish defence minister, Antoni Macierewicz, signed the documents authorising the inquiry live on Polish TV on Thursday (4 February).

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  • The late president, Lech Kaczynski, was polling to lose elections, due shortly after the crash (Photo: President.pl)

They instruct Poland’s civilian-military aircraft accident body, the KBWLLP, to convene a special 21-man panel which will start work in March.

Macierewicz, who previously blamed Russia for the crash and who said Tusk helped cover up the plot, indicated that the inquest will lead to prosecutions.

“I’m convinced, the findings of the inquiry will allow us to get closer to the truth, to give material to military prosecutors and to judge, in all fairness, those responsible for this terrible tragedy,” he said.

He accused the former Tusk government of “abandoning” the “fallen” by letting Russia take the lead on previous investigations.

He also compared Tusk’s government to Poland’s post-WWII leaders, who served the Soviet Union.

“The scale of its actions can only be compared to what happened after World War II. That’s when national heroes were laughed at, demeaned, and the Polish republic was given over into foreign hands,” he said.

The press conference began with a video commemorating the victims. Family members, who were invited to attend, applauded Macierewicz.

Ewa Blasik, the wife of a Polish military officer who died in the crash, also told press the Tusk government “repeated lies, which had been written in Moscow”.

Mystical

The incident, six years ago, claimed the lives of 96 people, including the then Polish president Lech Kaczynski and dozens of high-ranking military staff.

It stirred painful memories because it happened in the same place where Soviet forces, in 1940, murdered 22,000 Polish officers and intellectuals in the Katyn massacre.

The Russian leader, Valdimir Putin, at the time described the coincidence as “mystical”.

Official enquiries said the plane crashed when its wing struck a tree while trying to land in fog, blaming pilot error and Russian air-traffic control. But a parallel inquiry, led by Macierewicz, said there was a mid-air explosion.

Poland is already preparing to put five former Tusk officials, including his former chief of staff, Tomasz Arabski, on trial in March for negligence on VIP flight security.

Tusks’ office declined to comment on Thursday’s developments.

But previous statements by members of the new Polish government indicate Tusk himself might face charges.

Zbigniew Ziobro, Poland’s justice minister and prosecutor general, when asked by press on 30 November last year if Tusk might face Smolensk charges, said: “Is it possible? Yes, it’s possible.”

“We’ll see. In all certainty, Tusk is responsible for many injustices, starting with Smolensk.”

Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the late president’s twin brother and the head of the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party, made similar remarks on 5 October.

“Donald Tusk belongs to those politicians who are morally responsible for the Smolensk catastrophe and should disappear from the political scene,” he said.

“I wonder if they will go after Tusk - but this is the direction,” Andrzej Stankiewicz, a columnist for Rzeczpospolita, a Polish daily, said on Thursday.

Foregone conclusion?

Whether or not the EU president ends up on trial, PiS’ political adversaries say the outcome of the probe is a foregone conclusion.

The head of the 21-man panel, Waclaw Berczynski, an engineer, already endorsed the explosion theory as a member of Macierewicz’s parallel investigation.

He said on Thursday he was taking on the new task “without any preconceptions”.

But he added that the Tusk government’s inquiry “missed so many elements it moved in the direction of falsification”.

For her part, former Polish PM Ewa Kopacz, from Tusk’s Civic Platform party, accused PiS of trying to “make politics … on the back of human tragedy”.

“It’ll be wicked, if the new Smolensk commission is designed to prove Macierewicz’s theory,” she told Polish TV on Thursday.

Aleksander Kwasniewski, a former Polish president, said the Russian plot theory is “political fiction” because the late Lech Kaczynski posed no threat to the Kremlin.

“If he [Putin] takes care of his opponents, they’re opponents who really matter,” he said.

Soap opera

PiS has already tested EU nerves by passing judicial and media laws which, critics say, undermine judges and journalists' independence.

One media law involves journalists in public broadcasters being sacked, vetted, and rehired. Part of the vetting asks if they gave “objective” coverage of Smolensk.

Ryszard Petru, from the opposition Modern party, said PiS will exploit the new probe to make itself more popular. It’ll be a “new series on Polish public TV”, he said.

For its part, Russia said it won’t assist in the new investigation.

Its foreign ministry spokeswoman, Maria Zakharova, said on Thursday: “If Poland still has questions on the catastrophe, it should find answers to them on its own behalf.”

“I hope that this isn’t political. It’s a small hope, but it’s there,” she added.

EU commission puts Poland on the hook

The EU commission has triggered rule-of-law monitoring of Poland, in an unprecedented step, prompted by constitutional and media reforms. The move follows a nasty exchange of letters.

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