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February 17, 2019

Polish court orders Walesa to apologise over crash claims

Polish court orders Walesa to apologise over crash claims
'Polish arch-rivals Lech Walesa (L) and Jaroslaw Kaczynski met for the first time in years at the court in Gdansk last month' - By: AFP/File Krzysztof MYSTKOWSKI

A Polish court on Thursday ordered anti-communist icon Lech Walesa to publicly apologise to arch-rival Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the powerful leader of the governing rightwing party, for saying he was responsible for the deadly 2010 crash of a presidential jet in Russia.

Kaczynski lodged a defamation suit against Walesa over claims that he had insisted the jet land in heavy fog on a derelict airstrip and was therefore responsible for the crash that killed then president Lech Kaczynski, his identical twin, and all 95 others.

The disaster occurred as the presidential delegation was heading to a commemoration in Russia's Katyn forest for thousands of Polish army officers killed by Soviet secret police in 1940 -- a massacre the Kremlin denied until 1990.

Gdansk district court justice Weronika Klawonn found there was no evidence for Walesa's accusation and ordered him to issue a public apology to Kaczynski. But she denied Kaczynski's request for 30,000 zloty (7,000 euros, $7,900) in damages.

"Freedom of speech is not an absolute freedom, one of its limits is the protection of one's own reputation," Klawonn said in her verdict.

The judge also remarked that Walesa's accusations came on the heels of moves by Kaczynski to politicise the Smolensk crash and his allegations that Walesa was a secret communist agent -- something the Nobel Peace Prize winner has long denied.

Neither Walesa nor Kaczynski were present for the ruling.

Walesa had previously vowed to appeal any ruling against him, even raising the possibility of taking the case to an international court.

- Bitter foes -

Kaczynski and his Law and Justice (PiS) party have long insisted the crash was no accident.

Last year, he accused the liberal Civic Platform (PO) opposition party of then prime minister Donald Tusk -- now the EU president -- of being responsible for the crash in Smolensk, western Russia.

Tusk's previous PO government blamed bad weather and errors by the Polish pilots and Russian air traffic controllers for the crash.

Although both Walesa and Kaczynski fought Poland's communist regime, they later became bitter foes amid power struggles in the early years of Poland's democracy.

More recently, Walesa has been critical of Kaczynski and the PiS, which won power in October 2015 and has since pushed through a string of overhauls that led to mass protests at home and conflict with the European Union over rule of law violations.

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