Jan Śpiewak, an activist known for rooting out property corruption in Warsaw and a former campaigner against the government’s judicial reforms, has asked Andrzej Duda for a presidential pardon.

Śpiewak was ordered by a court to pay a 10,000 zloty fine for the defamation of Bogumiła Górnikowska-Ćwiąkalska, the daughter of a justice minister in the former Civic Platform-led government. Śpiewak had accused her of involvement in illegal property restitution.

The justification for the verdict was classified by the court, with Śpiewak telling journalists that this is the “best proof of this being a political verdict. This is judicial violence”. He also added that he found it symbolic that the verdict was announced on 13 December, the anniversary of the introduction of martial law in communist Poland.

After attending a meeting with President Duda, Śpiewak thanked the president for taking an interest in his cause and confirmed that he was seeking a pardon. According to sources cited by Gazeta Wyborcza, a leading Polish daily, Duda will pardon Śpiewak early in the new year. 

But Śpiewak also highlighted that he is not “a supporter of the current [judicial] changes and the way they are introduced by Law and Justice”, the ruling party, and which have also been signed into law and supported by Duda.

“However, I think that a reform of the judiciary is necessary,” said Śpiewak. “You need to change the system and not just the people. Courts must be democratised.”

The verdict against Śpiewak comes amid a heated debate on the controversial new legislation to introduce disciplinary measures against judges, which was proposed by Law and Justice (PiS) one day before Śpiewak’s own verdict was announced.

Śpiewak was previously one of the main organisers of the demonstrations against PiS’s judicial reforms. But now he has told state broadcaster TVP that “today he wouldn’t do it”. He also wrote on his Facebook page that courts in Poland “resemble those of authoritarian systems” and “do not hesitate to break the law in order to defend the elites” – echoing the kind of language used by PiS to justify its reforms, according to some critics of the government.

Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki wrote on Facebook: “Those who bravely fight for justice, like Jan Śpiewak, deserve respect, praise and a medal. Finding him guilty is contradictory to a social sense of justice.” 

However, Marcin Matczak, a law professor and vocal critic of the government’s justice reform, criticised Śpiewak for joining PiS’s attacks on the judiciary when it served his interests.

“The case of Śpiewak reveals a problem with our attitude to the judiciary,” wrote Matczak on Twitter. “PiS convinced us that whenever we are unhappy with a verdict, we have the right not to accept it. Unfortunately, rule of law is not a guarantee that justice will always be on our side.”

Śpiewak has come to prominence in recent years for his role in uncovering and seeking justice for the so-called “wild reprivatisation” scandal in Warsaw. This refers to the unlawful restitution of property confiscated by the former communist authorities, with some cases involving the collusion of public officials and family members connected to the city authorities, including former mayor Hanna Gronkiewicz-Waltz.

Participants have been accused, among other crimes, of using intimidation against current tenants of buildings and of faking birth certificates to demonstrate ownership. The issue was the subject of a detailed story in the Guardian in 2017.

Śpiewak accused Górnikowska-Ćwiąkalska of becoming the custodian for a 118-year old owner of a pre-war townhouse in Warsaw, resulting in her taking over the ownership of half of the house.

Upon the latest verdict, Śpiewak wrote on his Facebook page: “I lost. The court made a criminal out of me. For defending the weak, for defending justice (…). I am the only person convicted in the case of illegal restitution, although we proved that Ćwiąkalska repeatedly did not fulfil her obligations, and her actions led to a disaster for the tenants.”

He was referring to four tenants who, according to him, died prematurely because of Górnikowska-Ćwiąkalska’s actions.

Main image credit: Jacek Marczewski / Agencja Gazeta

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