Former Minister Arrested After Standoff at Poland’s Presidential Palace

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The incident escalated a campaign by the ousted Law and Justice party to resist the transfer of power after it lost its parliamentary majority in October.

A large crowd in front of a formal building.
Protesters gathering to support former Interior Minister Mariusz Kaminski in front of the Presidential Palace in Warsaw on Wednesday.Credit…Kuba Atys/Agencja Wyborcza.pl, via Reuters

Andrew Higgins

Poland’s bumpy transition to a new government hit dramatic turbulence on Wednesday when a prominent hard-line minister in the former right-wing administration declared himself a “political prisoner” and announced he was going on a hunger strike to protest his arrest following conviction for abuse of power.

Seeking to avoid a two-year jail sentence handed down by a Warsaw court in December, the former minister, Mariusz Kaminski, took refuge from police on Tuesday in the palace of the Polish president, a close ally of the former conservative governing party, Law and Justice.

The resulting standoff between police officers loyal to the new government of Prime Minister Donald Tusk, a veteran centrist, and Law and Justice supporters escalated a disruptive campaign by the former governing party, defeated in an October election, to resist the transfer of power by casting the election winners as illegitimate usurpers intent on persecuting their rivals.

Tuesday’s confrontation at the presidential palace ended peacefully late in the evening after police officers were allowed to enter the building. They took Mr. Kaminski, a former minister responsible for Poland’s security services, into custody, along with a former aide, Maciej Wasik, who has also been convicted of abuse of power.

In statement issued from jail on Wednesday, Mr. Kaminski denounced his arrest as “an act of political revenge” and said: “Therefore, as a political prisoner, I am starting a hunger protest from the first day of my imprisonment.”

Image

Mariusz Kaminski, a former government minister in charge of Poland’s security services, during a parliamentary session in December.Credit…Slawomir Kaminski/Agencja Wyborcza.pl, via Reuters

Mr. Kaminski, one of the most powerful members of the former Law and Justice government, led Poland’s tough crackdown on migrants trying to sneak into the country from neighboring Belarus. He stirred outrage in 2021 by accusing migrants of being sexual deviants.

The Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights, a monitoring group, called Mr. Kaminski’s description of himself as a political prisoner a “deeply unfair distortion” that “damages the memory of people actually imprisoned for their beliefs, attitudes and fighting for democracy and human rights.”

Mr. Kaminski and Mr. Wasik were sentenced last month to jail for their role in the 2007 entrapment of a political rival while serving as senior officials at Poland’s anti-corruption agency during a previous Law and Justice government. The case involved evidence that they had overseen a bribe offer and the forgery of documents in their pursuit of the rival, Andrzej Lepper, a radical farmers’ leader who later committed suicide.

The case rumbled on for years and resulted in an initial conviction in 2015. President Andrzej Duda pardoned them but his action was later invalidated. A new case, started after an appeal from Mr. Lepper’s family, ended in a new conviction on Dec. 20. But the men remained free until this week, when a Warsaw court issued a warrant for their immediate arrest, prompting Mr. Kaminski and Mr. Wasjik to seek sanctuary in the presidential palace.

Law and Justice won more votes than any other single party in Poland’s October general election but lost its parliamentary majority to a coalition of parties led by Mr. Tusk, who was named prime minister in December.

The former governing party’s chairman, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, insisting that right-wing forces won the election, has repeatedly vowed to block efforts by the new government to assert its authority. He led supporters last month in an occupation of the headquarters of Poland’s public broadcasting system, claiming that a change of management ordered by Mr. Tusk’s minister of culture was an assault on democracy.

Television and radio stations in the public broadcasting system had previously served as propaganda mouthpieces for Law and Justice, spewing conspiracy theories about Mr. Tusk being a German agent bent on turning Poland into a vassal state.

In a sign of further trouble ahead, a Warsaw court ruled on Tuesday that the government could not install new management at state television and radio without the assent of the National Media Council, a body created by Law and Justice and stacked with loyalists opposed to Mr. Tusk.

Andrew Higgins is the East and Central Europe bureau chief for The Times based in Warsaw. He covers a region that stretches from the Baltic republics of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania to Kosovo, Serbia and other parts of former Yugoslavia. More about Andrew Higgins

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