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Controversy Spurs Poland to Scrutinize Presidential Pardon

February 23, 2001|DAVID HOLLEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WARSAW — The recent revelation that an alleged gang leader on the lam once received a pardon from former President Lech Walesa has triggered a wave of controversy in Poland about this common presidential prerogative.

No one has accused Walesa of wrongdoing. But there have been allegations that one or more of his aides might have been bribed to prepare the paperwork for the 1993 pardon of Andrzej Zielinski.

At the time Zielinski--nicknamed Nightingale--was viewed by police as a small-time burglar who had gone into hiding after receiving a five-day pass from jail in 1988, halfway through a six-year sentence.

During a crackdown last year on one of Poland's most notorious organized crime groups, police named Zielinski as a boss of the Pruszkow gang and issued a warrant for his arrest. Early this month, state-run television reported the earlier pardon, and the case exploded in Polish media and political circles.

Analysts say that, despite the timing, the controversy does not appear to have been triggered by the uproar in the United States over former President Clinton's pardon on his last day in office of fugitive commodities trader Marc Rich. Comparisons are inevitable, however, despite obvious differences in the two cases.

"Clinton made a totally conscious decision to pardon Rich," said Piotr Stasinski, deputy editor in chief of Gazeta Wyborcza, this country's largest-circulation newspaper. "In Poland we most probably have a totally different situation: Someone simply gave Walesa a paper to sign, maybe a corrupted official from his chancellery."

Awareness that questions have been raised in the U.S. about Clinton's actions has added weight to critics' demands here for clarifications about the Zielinski case. Also, some of the same issues, such as what are appropriate grounds for presidential pardons, are being discussed in both countries.

"A question might arise whether constitutional equality in the face of the law is not being undermined here," Jerzy Wierchowicz, leader of Freedom Union party members of the lower house of Parliament, wrote to President Aleksander Kwasniewski in an open letter calling for public justifications of pardons. "Every controversial decision which is not clear to the public or which society opposes weakens the confidence of the citizens in truth, the state and its institutions."

Walesa, who led Poland's 1980s struggle for democracy, has said he has no objection to the Warsaw prosecutors' decision to open an investigation into the Zielinski pardon.

"I have not overstepped any of my powers," Walesa said. "I do not even want to think that some of my closest associates were trying to get some money out of it. And nobody bought me. I did not overthrow communism to sell out to some scoundrel."

In his appeal for a pardon, according to Polish media, Zielinski said that he was suffering from depression and a return to prison would hurt his health and that he and his wife had a newborn who needed his care.

Stanislaw Iwanicki, who heads the Justice and Human Rights Committee of the lower house of Parliament, said during a televised discussion on the private TVN network that additional clarifications are needed because "what's involved is the prestige of the position of the head of state, irrespective of who is holding the office at the moment."

"What's also involved is protecting the prestige of Lech Walesa, one of the greatest Poles alive," Iwanicki said. "And that requires that all circumstances surrounding it should be explained. We cannot treat it as something marginal."

But Ryszard Kalisz, Kwasniewski's chief of staff, argued on the same show that "there is no obligation to justify pardons because this is solely a presidential power which is given to him by the constitution."

"Pardon, or grace, applies only to criminals . . . and not to people who are innocent, wonderful or great," Kalisz added.

The debate here also touches on whether too many presidential pardons are being issued. Kalisz noted that about 700 pardons were issued in 1999, compared with 22,000 convictions nationwide that year, and that this rate should be viewed as quite a small figure.

Kalisz said that about 90% of those receiving pardons in Poland are not in prison when it is granted.

*

Ela Kasprzycka of The Times' Warsaw Bureau contributed to this report.

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