A judge has ordered Jarosław Kaczyński, leader of Poland’s ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party and the country’s de facto leader, to apologise to former foreign minister Radosław Sikorski for accusing him of “treason” over the Smolensk plane crash.

PiS has long suggested that the former Civic Platform (PO) government, in which Sikorski served, colluded with Russia in either causing or covering up the crash, which killed then president Lech Kaczyński – Jarosław’s twin brother – as well as 95 others.

The ruling was announced by Sikorski’s lawyer, Jacek Dubois, and will require Kaczyński to publish an apology on news website Onet, where his interview containing the defamatory words was published.

“The slanderer again branded. Let’s not be fooled by his lies on Sunday,” tweeted Sikorski, celebrating his legal victory and referring to this weekend’s presidential election, at which incumbent president Andrzej Duda, an ally of PiS, is standing against PO’s Rafał Trzaskowski.

The two men involved in the case were once allies. Sikorski served as defence minister in a government led by Jarosław Kaczyński from 2006-7, at a time when Lech Kaczyński was president. But Sikorski later switched his loyalties to PO, and is now a prominent critic of the PiS government.

The current legal dispute dates back to 2016, when Kaczyński gave an interview to Onet in which he claimed that “the former [PO-led] government acted under the dictate of the Russians” with regard to the Smolensk crash.

As an example, he said that Sikorski, who was then foreign minister, ordered Poland’s deputy ambassador to Moscow to withdraw an application for the Smolensk crash site to be given extraterritorial status.

This, suggested Kaczyński, amounted to “diplomatic treason”, which is a crime in Poland carrying a punishment of up to ten years in prison.

Sikorski, who now serves as a PO MEP, sued Kaczyński, saying that his claim was false and demanding an apology for violating his good name, honour and dignity, as well as a 30,000 zloty donation to charity.

His case was, however, rejected at the first instance by the regional court in Warsaw, which ruled that Kaczyński’s words “fell within the limits of permitted criticism”, reported Dziennik Gazeta Prawna.

Sikorski, however, decided to appeal. “The stake in this case is whether one can use lies with impunity in public life, whether lies are a method of exercising power and influencing public opinion,” he said, quoted by Radio Maryja.

The appeals court in Warsaw has now overturned the initial decision and ruled in Sikorski’s favour, Dubois has announced. The content and details of the ruling, which is now binding, have not yet been made public.

Commemoration and controversy as Poland marks tenth anniversary of Smolensk crash

Since returning to power in 2015, Kaczyński has repeatedly promised to reveal “the truth” about what happened at Smolensk and in its aftermath.

Polish and Russian official investigations both found the crash to have been an accident. But PiS has always rejected those findings, claiming there was some kind of cover-up, and even that the crash could have been caused deliberately.

Yet despite extensive investigations during its almost five years in power, PiS has not presented evidence to convincingly contradict official accounts.

Earlier this year, the head of the government’s investigatory committee, former defence minister Antoni Macierewicz, once again promised that decisive findings would soon be released. These would prove that official investigations were “falsified” and “Russian secret services” were involved in maintenance of the aircraft, he said.

Previous similar promises have not resulted in any conclusive new evidence, and Macierewicz’s latest report – which was due to be released on the tenth anniversary of the crash in April – has been postponed indefinitely, purportedly because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Poland and Russia “conducting dialogue” on event to mark Katyn and Smolensk anniversaries

Last year, Kaczyński claimed that Macierewicz’s investigation had “made some findings along the way, but they were not announced, because it is better not to agitate the public”.

In 2019, however, Tomasz Arabski – chief of staff to Donald Tusk, who was the prime minister at the time of the crash – was found guilty of negligence for his role in organising the presidential flight to Smolensk. He received a ten-month suspended sentence, though an appeal is still pending.

Polls in recent years have shown that only a minority – albeit a substantial one – of Poles believe that the disaster was anything other than an accident. Just over a quarter (26%) think it was a deliberate attack, according to an Ipsos poll conducted in February for OKO.press. In the same survey, 59% said it was an accident.

But among those who said they intended to vote for the re-election of PiS-backed incumbent president Andrzej Duda, around half believed that the tragedy was caused by an attack.

Norman Davies: Remembering Katyn and Smolensk

Main image credit: Center for American Progress/Flickr (under CC BY-ND 2.0)

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