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Interview. As Poland’s new right-wing government tears apart basic institutions, Danuta Przywara, president of the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights, says freedom of expression and respect for the courts are at stake.

The Orbán-ization of Poland

The far-right Law and Justice party (PiS) triumphed in the November elections here thanks to its popular campaign message: that immigrants “carry risks of diseases or epidemics.”

What better way for party chairman Jaroslaw Kaczynski to celebrate the Orbán-ization of Poland than with a private summit with Viktor Orbán. In a five-hour meeting last week, the two leaders dined on soup and trout in the Polish town of Niedzica, which once belonged to the Kingdom of Hungary.

Ahead of a European Union debate on the Poland’s ultra-conservative swing, scheduled for next week, we spoke with Danuta Przywara, president of the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights, an NGO founded in 1989 that has been active in Poland.

Is the integration of immigrants on the agenda at a national level in Poland?

At present there is no plan for the integration of immigrants. Only to people recognized as refugees is guaranteed participation in an annual course that includes Polish [language] instruction, vocational training and payment of a subsidy. We think it is still too little. For years, appeals by NGOs and local associations remain unheeded. The lack of adequate provision was also criticized last November in a report by the Supreme Chamber of Control.

Are local authorities preparing to welcome refugees and their families?

According to press reports, only 66 gmina [Polish municipalities] out of about 2,500 in the country have expressed their willingness to accept refugees. Unfortunately we are not able to monitor the degree of the initiatives of local authorities. We know, for example, that the municipal administration of Warsaw is preparing citywide coordination to facilitate the integration of refugees.

Is there alarm about the effects of the media reform signed this week by President Andrzej Duda?

We are very skeptical of the changes introduced in Warsaw. We must remember that the Council of Europe and other organizations on civil rights always advance the autonomy of public media. The solutions proposed by the government should be in the opposite direction. Even more worrying is that the majority has repeatedly stated that the reform is only the first step in a broader process of transformation. At that point, freedom of expression itself would be at risk.

Duda has refused to swear in three left-wing judges appointed by the previous government. Will the institutions of justice be able to protect themselves?

Despite the government’s intentions, the Constitutional Court has managed to avoid total paralysis. The members of the court have rejected reforms and issued a ruling that aims to integrate the judges who have not been able to execute their function. The preservation of the judiciary in Poland will also depend on pressures international and supranational organizations exert on our country.

When did the “polsko-polska” war in Polish society — what Lech Walesa called “civil war” — begin?

The divisions between opponents and proponents of liberal democracy has been under way for at least two decades. Unfortunately, the moat was dug even more in the last decade since the debate has become dominated by Polish supporters of the two major parties [PiS and Civic Platform]. It’s important to remember that almost half of Poles are not willing to take sides. At the last election the turnout was just barely 50.59 percent.

Has the government really paid compensation to Guantanamo detainees Abu Zubaydah and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri after the ruling in Strasbourg?

We understand that the government has made payments. However, the most important points of the judgment by the European Court of Human Rights are aside from that: the obligation to carry out a proper investigation of the CIA black sites in Mazury [the investigation began in 2008 has not yet ended], and attempting to ensure diplomatic safety for al-Nashiri. The HFHR has been monitoring the situation since 2008. According to a spokesperson of the Polish Foreign Ministry, our government has sent two memos to the United States requesting diplomatic assurances on al-Nashiri. The American side has in turn passed on Poland’s demands to the relevant authorities.

How has the situation changed after the victory of PiS policies in October?

The mechanisms that control constitutionality are likely to be liquidated, and also the balance between the three branches of government is at risk. In addition to media reform, including “positive” changes — ​​approved by the government in record time, and without wider consultation — we must mention the abolition of the civil service. The majority is also working on police reform and a bill that aims to unify the functions of the Attorney General with the Ministry of Justice.