Wednesday 12 December 2018

Polish government backs away from controversial 'Holocaust Law'

Frans Timmermans, left, and Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki (Alik Keplicz/AP)
Frans Timmermans, left, and Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki (Alik Keplicz/AP)

Vanessa Gera

Poland's nationalist-conservative ruling party has backed away from a controversial Holocaust speech law.

Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki is introducing a new version of the law which would remove criminal provisions for statements deemed harmful to Poland's good name.

A version of the law passed earlier this year called for prison terms of up to three years for falsely accusing the Polish nation of Holocaust crimes that were committed by Nazi Germany.

Authorities long argued they needed to fight back against foreign media sometimes calling Auschwitz and other German death camps "Polish death camps" because they were operated on occupied Polish territory.

However, the law sparked a major diplomatic crisis with Israel, where many felt it was an attempt to whitewash episodes of Polish violence against Jews during the Second World War.

The United States warned it threatened academic freedom and that it would harm Poland's "strategic position".

The new draft bill was presented to parliament by Mr Morawiecki, with MPs holding an emotional debate as members of the opposition lashed out at the Law and Justice party for passing the law in the first place.

The new version removes the penal provisions and is likely to allow Poland to repair its international standing and relationship with its allies.

However, Law and Justice also risks losing some support from its nationalist voters. One nationalist MP, Robert Winnicki, described it as caving in to Jewish interests.

Mr Morawiecki told parliament in a session that was televised to the nation that the purpose of both the original and the amended legislation is the same - "the fight for the truth of the Second World War and post-war times".

Polish authorities said the legislation was modelled on anti-defamation laws in many other countries, including laws criminalising Holocaust denial.

However, Holocaust survivors and other Jews in Israel and the United States feared that it would stifle discussion about the Holocaust and enable Poland to whitewash the role of the Poles who killed or denounced Jews during the German wartime occupation of Poland.

The law was also sent to the Constitutional Tribunal for review by the president, who said he had some doubts about it.

It was never enforced in practice, and it ironically had the effect of sparking more discussion than ever before about Polish misdeeds during the war - a time when the nation never collaborated with the Nazi occupiers.

Press Association

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