WARSAW (Reuters) -Poland’s former Interior Minister Mariusz Kaminski said he had started a hunger strike as a “political prisoner” on Wednesday, and was joined in the protest by his ex-deputy Maciej Wasik a day after both men, convicted of abuse of power, were sent to jail.
Their high-profile arrests, which took place inside the presidential palace in Warsaw on Tuesday while the president was at a different location in the city, have triggered raw emotion in Poland with protests carrying over to Wednesday.
The events mark a gear change in new Prime Minister Donald Tusk’s efforts to undo policies of his predecessors, the nationalist Law and Justice (PiS) party, and punish those accused of wrongdoing during their time in power.
PiS faced accusations of subverting the rule of law during its eight years in office. Tusk’s pro-European coalition’s drive to bring Poland back in line with European Union democratic standards and unblock tens of billions of euros in EU funding pits him against PiS ally President Andrzej Duda.
“I declare that I treat my conviction … as an act of political revenge,” Kaminski said in the statement, read by his former deputy Blazej Pobozy at a press conference in front of the prime minister’s office on Wednesday morning.
“As a political prisoner, I started a hunger strike from the first day of my imprisonment.”
On Wednesday evening, Wasik’s wife told private broadcaster TV Republika that her “husband also began a hunger strike.”
“He said he felt he has to, that it was necessary,” she said after the wives of both ex-ministers met with them in prison on Wednesday.
Police entered Poland’s presidential palace to detain Kaminski and another of his former deputies, Maciej Wasik, on Tuesday. The two politicians had remained in the palace after attending a ceremony there earlier that day.
“The men behaved as if the presidential palace was a kind of asylum, a territory where Polish law did not apply. And no, it is not,” current Interior Minister Marcin Kierwinski from the Civic Coalition (KO) party told private broadcaster TVN24.
“The police acted regardless of the fact that the case concerned well-known politicians.”
Kaminski’s lawyer told private radio RMF FM he is preparing a complaint against his Tuesday detention as well as against the court’s order to send him to prison. The station reported earlier that he was also preparing a final appeal against a conviction to the Supreme Court – a cassation – aimed at acquittal.
TWO-YEAR SENTENCES FOR ABUSE OF POWER
PiS lawmaker Kaminski was convicted of abuse of power for allowing agents under his command to use entrapment in an investigation. He denied wrongdoing and in 2015 was pardoned by Duda, allowing him to take up his government post.
Last year, the Supreme Court said the case should be reopened and Kaminski and Wasik were sentenced by a lower court in December to two years in prison.
“I want to say clearly that if a politician is in prison, it does not mean that he is a political prisoner,” Deputy Justice Minister Maria Ejchart said.
“Everyone has the right not to eat or drink, it is an individual decision,” she added. “In a situation where a person is under the care of the state, when someone is convicted, he or she is subjected to medical examinations, body measurements, how the body reacts to the decision to stop eating.”
Polish Ombudsman Marcin Wiacek was quoted by PAP state news agency as saying that “an incarcerated person does not have – according to the provisions of the executive penal code – the right to refuse a meal.”
“If such a protest takes place, its consequence is that such a person, an inmate, will be referred to medical care and diagnostic procedures.”
Former prime minister and current PiS MP Mateusz Morawiecki called on representatives of EU institutions and other international organizations to take “an unequivocal stand on this appalling turn of events.”
“I appeal to the democratic community of the West not to look passively at what is happening in Poland today,” he said in a party statement.
The Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights said in a statement that calling Kaminski and Wasik “political prisoners” is a deeply unfair distortion, directly damaging the memory of people actually imprisoned because of their beliefs, attitudes, and fight for democracy and human rights.”
Duda said on Wednesday he “would not rest” until Kaminski and Wasik were freed and said he believed his pardoning of the pair in 2015 was in line with the constitution. He reiterated on many occasions that he believed his pardon should stand.
Lawyers had questioned whether Duda had the power to pardon Kaminski before an appeals court had issued a final ruling.
Hundreds of PiS supporters gathered on Tuesday in front of the presidential palace and at a police station where the pair were held to protest their detention.
A gathering in support of Kaminski and Wasik in front of the presidential palace on Tuesday evening turned into a protest against their apprehension, with people also gathering near a police station they were taken to and later a Warsaw prison where they were incarcerated.
On Wednesday evening over a hundred people protested again in front of the presidential palace against the detentions, private radio RMF reported, adding that some also came to support the decision to put them in prison.
(Reporting by Alan Charlish, Pawel Florkiewicz, Marek Strzelecki, Anna Koper and Karol Badohal; Editing by Ros Russell)