Crime & Justice, Europe, Headlines, Human Rights

POLAND: Populism Seen behind Death Penalty Talk

Zoltán Dujisin

KRAKOW, Oct 3 2007 (IPS) - Warsaw’s head-on clash with the European Union by vetoing a symbolic day against the death penalty is being interpreted here as a pre-electoral attempt to win domestic support for the so-called “Fourth Polish Republic” – a vision of a nation with a far wider sense of morality and democracy than existed under any past government.

The latest EU-Polish confrontation has come in the midst of a political crisis in Poland, after Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski from the ruling Law and Justice Party, PiS, dissolved the governing coalition and called early elections for Oct. 21.

On Sep. 18, Poland blocked a proposal by the Portuguese EU council presidency to mark a “European Day against the Death Penalty” on Oct. 10. This would have been a contribution to the World Day against the Death Penalty held annually by the Paris-based World Coalition against the Death Penalty.

Warsaw objected on the grounds that the EU proposal did not take into account the broader principle of the “right to life”.

“If someone wants to discuss the death penalty, then he should also discuss banning euthanasia and abortion in the same context,” Polish foreign ministry spokesman Robert Szaniawski told the press.

Polish Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski’s alternative proposal was a “Day in Defence of Life”, Polish foreign minister Ana Fotyga said.

“We would like first to discuss what it really means,” Interior Minister Wladyslaw Stasiak said, commenting on the controversy. “But we don’t want a debate on reinstating the death penalty, nobody wants that in Poland.”

“With the electoral campaign this is a very good topic for them. They know they will not reinstate the death penalty, but it allows them to say something that goes down very well with right-wing voters, without taking any action,” Andrzej Bobinski, programme coordinator at the Centre for International Relations in Warsaw, told IPS.

He added: “It’s only a media issue, it’s not real.”

The Council of Europe, where voting does not require unanimity, reacted swiftly to the Polish veto and the following week itself adopted Oct. 10 as the “European Day against Death Penalty”. It also expressed the hope the EU would join in “as soon as possible”.

On the same day, the European parliament also displayed solidarity by reiterating its support for the European anti-death penalty day initiative and expressing hope the next Polish government would support it.

Italian foreign minister Massimo D’Alema, currently working hard to win worldwide support for an EU-supported death penalty moratorium proposal, shortly to be presented to the UN General Assembly, expressed anger at the Polish veto. It was “reactionary and nationalistic”, he said, adding that he hoped the current Polish government would suffer defeat in the upcoming elections.

But such public condemnation might only increase the Polish right’s Euro-scepticism and win over other critics who see the EU stand on the death penalty as an overstepping of its mandate, Bobinski said.

It gave the ruling PiS party the opportunity to portray the pro-EU camp in Poland as those who “defend murderers – unlike us”, he said.

The death penalty and law-and-order issues have been controversial ones in Poland for months before the EU veto.

Last May, following a murder case involving the killing of a minor by a 19-year-old, who was later released, President Lech Kaczynski, the Prime Minister’s twin brother, declared that it was “inadmissible when judges’ views prevail over the moral beliefs of the general public”.

Supreme Court President Lech Gardowcki replied by accusing the Kaczynski twins of undermining the justice system with their constant criticism and interference. They were pushing for tougher sentencing although crime rates were falling, he said.

Roman Giertych, the leader of the ultra-Catholic League of Polish Families, until recently a junior coalition partner in the government, has termed Europe’s laws on crime as “anachronistic” and called for a referendum in favour of the restoration of capital punishment for the most extreme cases of murder and “paedophile murderers”.

Giertych, who was education minister, had proposed schools should count religious lesson results in the final average class marks, mandatory school uniforms and separate schools for “aggressive youth”, measures all welcomed by the Kaczynski brothers.

Giertych also had plans to abolish the teaching of Darwin’s evolutionary theory in schools and to introduce anti-abortion classes to educate pupils about “the killing of unborn babies”.

According to a March poll, 63 percent of Poles supported the death penalty, compared to 31 percent who opposed it. This reflected a widespread view that murderers often get away with overly light penalties, commentators said.

The Kaczynski brothers, to whom very few topics are taboo, have supported the death penalty as an effective tool in fighting corruption and crime. They campaigned for its restoration in the presidential and parliamentary elections of 2005.

Many conservatives here argue that the country’s transition from communism has been incomplete as a result of powerful and corrupt cliques remaining in power and plundering the state. They have proposed rebuilding the country – a “Fourth Polish Republic” – on the basis of a new moral climate.

The EU is often compared by them to a Trojan horse for decadent, liberal values, to which a re-born Poland should not capitulate.

Concerned observers in Western Europe have pointed to troubling similarities between the twin brothers’ ideology and Poland’s pre-communist nationalistic, illiberal and anti-Semitic regime.

Poland is one of three EU states which prohibit abortion on demand. Alicja Tysiac was unable to find a doctor for an abortion in Poland in 2000, despite warnings that her pregnancy could result in damage to her eyesight. After giving birth, her sight did seriously deteriorate, she has claimed.

Tysiac filed a complaint against Poland in the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg in 2003. The court ruled in her favour last March, but the Polish government appealed against the decision. On Sep. 25, the court rejected Poland’s appeal, confirming Tysiac’s right to abortion and ordered the Polish government to pay her damages.

Much of the Western media has indirectly blamed Poland’s Catholicism, which permeates much of the country’s public life, not only for the country’s abortion laws, but also for the government’s flirting with the idea of capital punishment.

Some commentators here have questioned why Pope Benedict XVI has failed to reprimand some of the more extremist sectors of the Polish Church, which is suffering from internal divisions.

Marta Scawicka, who works for the Catholic foundation Lux Veritatis, said the death penalty in Poland was an issue of personal expression. “But as a Catholic I am against death penalty, John Paul II was against it, and so is the Bible,” she told IPS.

Poland abolished the death penalty, an essential requirement for joining the EU, in 1997. A moratorium had been in place since the time of the last execution in 1988. Poland joined the EU, currently a body with 27 member nations, in 2004.

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