By Rob Picheta and Antonia Mortensen, CNN
(CNN) — Two populist Polish lawmakers were dramatically arrested on corruption charges inside the country’s Presidential Palace on Tuesday, prompting one to start a hunger strike and escalating a heated confrontation between the country’s new government and its former ruling group.
Mariusz Kamiński and Maciej Wąsik, both MPs in the ousted authoritarian group Law and Justice (PiS), were detained Tuesday after seemingly taking refuge inside the Warsaw palace of President Andrzej Duda.
They were sentenced to two years in prison last month, and banned from sitting as MPs for five years, over corruption charges relating to PiS’ original term in office, between 2005 and 2007.
But that sentencing had infuriated the PiS-aligned president and many within the party, because Duda had previously pardoned the pair before their conviction. The Supreme Court had ruled the pardon was void but the Constitutional Tribunal, another body filled with PiS loyalists, has said it should stand.
The case, and the dramatic events it caused at the Presidential Palace, highlights a bitter struggle between the new centrist government, led by Donald Tusk, and PiS, the party that oversaw an illiberal takeover of Poland’s institutions before being defeated in October’s election.
Tusk has been combative in his early efforts to redress the takeover of public institutions and the degradation of the rule of law, a trend under the PiS government that alarmed international watchdogs and fueled a years-long standoff between Warsaw and the European Union.
But PiS has reacted furiously, with Duda publicly criticizing his prime minister’s moves and making clear he will frustrate huge swathes of Tusk’s program.
On Wednesday Kamiński called his conviction an “act of political revenge” and said he would go on hunger strike in protest, in a statement reported by Polish news agency PAP. The pair have essentially ignored their convictions and have attempted to sit in Poland’s parliament despite being barred from holding public office.
Duda added in a Wednesday speech that he is “deeply shocked that people who are … honest, who have always fought for a free Poland, have been locked up in prison. They are in prison, while a number of people with corruption charges are walking free.”
But Marcin Kierwiński, the new government’s Interior Minister, said on X after their arrests: “Everyone is equal before the law.”
A bitter political confrontation
Kamiński and Wąsik’s ultimate conviction late last year followed nearly a decade of hearings. They were first put on trial in 2015, over their role in a scandal over secret deals between the Agriculture Ministry and Polish business that ultimately led to the early collapse of PiS’ first government.
Duda, who is supported by PiS, pardoned the pair in 2015 – before the verdict was handed down.
The validity of that pardon, as well as the corruption charges themselves, then became the subject of a long-running legal saga that ended in a final conviction by a Warsaw court last month.
“Throughout the last months and weeks, I have stood and still stand in the opinion that Mariusz Kamiński and Maciej Wąsik and their collaborators were pardoned in 2015 in accordance with the constitution and that this pardon is valid,” Duda said Wednesday.
But the courts ultimately ruled otherwise, finding that the pardon – made before the pair were found guilty and sentenced – should not stand.
The Warsaw court that sentenced the pair then rejected a request from their lawyers to delay detaining the two convicted politicians. Instead, it issued an order on Tuesday morning to detain the two MPs and place them in solitary confinement.
Hours later, the MPs were arrested inside the Presidential Palace where Duda, who remains the president until 2025, is based.
The two lawmakers had continued to serve as members of parliament and government ministers for PiS while their cases were ongoing, but they are now barred from sitting in the Sejm.
They nonetheless had promised to ignore the final court ruling and show up for proceedings, prompting the Speaker of the Sejm to suspend a planned session on Wednesday.
The remarkable showdown heightens political tensions in Poland even further after a divisive election led to the removal of PiS from government.
Within days of taking office Tusk dramatically replaced the heads of Poland’s public broadcaster TVP, which had become a government mouthpiece under PiS, in an effort to remove the populist party’s control over Poland’s airwaves.
But his heavy-handed approach led to protests by PiS MPs and sparked some concerns from Polish NGOs that he had overreached.
TVP went off the air over the Christmas period amid the standoff and its news website has been down for weeks. Duda then threatened to veto Tusk’s budget while it included funds for the management of public media. The government responded by putting the network, and Polish news agency PAP, into liquidation.
An opposition-led protest is scheduled for Thursday in Warsaw in an effort to put pressure on Tusk.
But the veteran of pro-European centrism has support from large swathes of Poland’s population who are eager to see PiS leaders face accountability for an eight-year term in office that eroded the independence of the media, judiciary, state-owned companies and cultural institutions.
Tusk served as Poland’s prime minister from 2007 to 2014 and led the European Council from 2014 to 2019. He has vowed to usher in a new era of cooperation between Poland and the bloc and has said that “Poland will regain its position as a leader in the European Union.”
™ & © 2024 Cable News Network, Inc., a Warner Bros. Discovery Company. All rights reserved.