President Andrzej Duda on Tuesday signed into law a controversial Holocaust bill intended to safeguard Poland’s image abroad but which has instead triggered an unprecedented diplomatic row with Israel and tensions with the US and Ukraine.
Duda also said he would send the legislation, which now comes into force, to the Constitutional Tribunal to rule on whether it conforms with guarantees for freedom of speech.
The law sets fines or a maximum three-year jail term for anyone ascribing “responsibility or co-responsibility to the Polish nation or state for crimes committed by the German Third Reich — or other crimes against humanity and war crimes.”
The main aim is to prevent people from erroneously describing Nazi German death camps such as Auschwitz-Birkenau as Polish, simply due to their geographical location.
Israel has expressed deep concerns that the legislation could open the door to prosecuting Holocaust survivors for their testimony should it concern the involvement of individual Poles for allegedly killing or giving up Jews to the Germans.
But Duda and other Polish leaders insist the law does not limit freedom of speech on Holocaust issues that are based in historical fact.
“I have decided to sign the law but also to send it to the Constitutional Tribunal,” Duda told reporters in Warsaw on Tuesday.
He said the decision “preserves the interests of Poland, our dignity and the historical truth” and also “takes into account the sensitivity of those for whom the question of historical memory of the Holocaust remains exceptionally important”.
– ‘Rewriting history’? –
Israel said Tuesday it still hoped that “we will manage to agree on changes and corrections,” adding that it “continues to communicate with the Polish authorities.”
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared last week Israel had “no tolerance for the distortion of the truth and rewriting history or denying the Holocaust.”
Analysts say the legislation has isolated Poland from Israel, a key ally of the United States and neighbouring Ukraine.
On Tuesday US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Washington was “disappointed” that President Duda had signed the controversial bill.
Tillerson referred to Poland as “our strong ally,” and acknowledged that terms like “Polish death camps” were “painful and misleading.”
But he said fundamental freedoms must be protected in combating historical inaccuracies.
The US State Department warned last week that the bill could have “repercussions” on “Poland’s strategic interests and relationships”.
According to Polish security analyst Grzegorz Kostrzewa-Zorbas the statement was the “strongest” made by the US toward Poland since the Cold War.
He told the Gazeta Wyborcza daily the tensions could potentially affect Warsaw’s talks with the US on an unprecedented multi-billion dollar defence purchase of a US-made Patriot anti-missile defence system.
Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki has described the tensions as a “temporary weakening of relations with Israel and the USA” but added that he hoped for an improvement soon after Poland explained its position.
Foreign Minister Jacek Czaputowicz said Monday that Poland was open to amending the law but insisted that Israel’s criticism was “due to a misunderstanding” and “over-interpretation”.
– ‘No doubt’ –
Jewish organisations from across the globe have also expressed deep concern.
European Jewish Association Chairman Rabbi Menachem Margolin said in a statement Tuesday his organisation would challenge what he described as the “flawed” law in Poland’s Constitutional Tribunal.
“It seems inconceivable that an EU member state can be permitted to whitewash history by imposing draconian legislation that can imprison people for holding an alternative view on what happened during Europe’s darkest days,” Margolin added.
Ukraine has also slammed the law with President Petro Poroshenko protesting against “absolutely biased and categorically unacceptable” articles that allow for the prosecution of anyone denying the crimes of Ukrainian nationalists committed between 1925 and 1950.
Germany’s Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel said “there is not the slightest doubt about who is responsible for the extermination camps, who made them work to kill millions of European Jews: namely the Germans.
“It was our country that organised these mass murders and no one else. The existence of certain collaborators does not change anything,” Gabriel said.
“Poland can be certain that any distortion of history such as the notion of ‘Polish concentration camps’ will be clearly rejected and firmly condemned.”