New Polish government takes down findings on Russian air disaster

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Coffins of some of the victims at the Presidential Palace in Warsaw, photographed days after the crash.
Image: Chancellery of the President of the Republic of Poland.

The Law and Justice Party of Poland, which took power last week, this week removed web pages featuring the results of an investigation into the Smolensk air disaster in Russia in 2010. The cause of the crash, which killed Polish President Lech Kaczynski, is disputed.

The flight was carrying high-profile political figures to attend a ceremony commemorating the 70th anniversary of the Katyn massacre, when thousands of Polish prisoners of war and civilians were killed by the Soviets. All 96 on board died. Amongst the dead were First Lady Maria Kaczyńska, several members of the lower parliamentary house known as the Sejm, Deputy Foreign Minister Andrzej Kremer, National Security Bureau head Aleksander Szczygło, and Ryszard Kaczorowski, the last President of the Polish government-in-exile.

The Law and Justice Party was in power at the time, led then as now by Lech Kaczynski's identical twin brother Jaroslaw Kaczynski. Jaroslaw was himself Prime Minister of Poland from 2006 to 2007. Jaroslaw contested the vacated Presidency later that year but was defeated by Bronislaw Komorowski of the Civic Platform Party. Lech and Jaroslaw co-founded Law and Justice.

Some of the wreckage shortly after the disaster.
Image: Bartosz Staszewski.

Russian and Polish investigations deemed the crash an accident. Edmund Klich, head of the Polish air accident investigatory body, said in 2010 the Polish military pilots of the Tupolev Tu-154 were determined to get the dignitaries through dense fog so they could attend the ceremony. He said the pilots were insufficiently trained and put safety second, whilst Russian air traffic controllers should have diverted the aircraft away from Smolensk. Passengers entered the cockpit during the final stages of the flight.

Government spokesman Elzbieta Witek yesterday said Donald Tusk, a former Prime Minister, should be prosecuted before the State Tribunal, although Witek said this was a personal view and not government policy. Jaroslaw and allies have insinuated Russia purposefully brought the plane down.

Law and Justice accuse Tusk, Prime Minister from 2007 to 2014, of failings before and after the crash. He is accused of not ensuring the President was safe, of not establishing an international investigation, and of allowing Russia to maintain possession of the wreckage.

Russia's Interstate Aviation Committee performed its own investigation blaming solely Poland's pilots and exonerating the controllers. Upon receiving the first draft of their report in 2010 Tusk branded the contents "unacceptable", the findings "without foundation", and the overall result a breach of the Chicago Convention, an international regulatory document on air travel.

Tusk resigned last year to take the European Council Presidency until 2017. Witek said he had "given away" investigative control. Polish minister Adam Lipinski has previously called for Tusk's prosecution after his European duties conclude, saying he has "a lot to answer for" over the disaster.

Polish conspiracy theorists have been spurred on by Russian refusal to accede to Polish requests to return wreckage, which the Russians claim to still be investigating.

The new Prime Minister is Law and Justice's Beata Szydlo. Asked on Tuesday about one disappearing website containing investigative findings, Szydlo told press "the website has been closed and will simply remain closed."