Families divided as Poland begins exhuming 2010 crash victims

November 15, 2016 9:41 am
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The tomb of late Polish President Lech Kaczynski and his wife Maria, in the crypt of Wawel castle in Krakow © AFP/File / Bartek Wrzesniowski

, WARSAW, Poland, Nov 15 – Polish justice officials began exhuming the remains of their country’s former head of state on Monday, reviving a probe into a 2010 presidential plane crash that has stoked friction with Russia and caused divisions at home.

Prosecutors want to check the remains were correctly identified and test for traces of explosives or combustion, as the governing rightwing Law and Justice (PiS) party believes a fire may have erupted onboard before the crash.

The PiS suspects the crash involved foul play, but Polish and Russian investigators have never found any evidence to support the claim.

Local media say 83 of the victims’ remains are to be exhumed in the investigation likely to last up to a year. Danish, Portuguese and Swiss experts will take part in the new probe.

Late president Lech Kaczynski and his wife Maria were buried in the crypt of the Wawel royal castle in Krakow where the kings of Poland and Jozef Pilsudski, the father of Polish independence in 1918, are also interred.

A Russian Interior Ministry soldier stands guard near the wreckage of a Polish government Tupolev Tu-154 aircraft which crashed on April 10, 2010 near Smolensk airport © AFP/File / Natalia Kolesnikova

Justice officials began the process of removing their remains Monday evening, local media reported, adding that the late president’s twin brother, PiS leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski and daughter Marta were due to be on hand.

The remains were to be taken to Krakow’s nearby Jagiellonian University for forensic examination and will be returned to their resting place by Friday, reports said.

The couple were among 96 people — most of them senior Polish state officials — who died in the crash in Smolensk, western Russia, on April 10 2010.

The delegation was heading to a ceremony 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.

– Divisions –

In March, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov dismissed Polish suspicions as “groundless, biased and having no connection with the real circumstances of this aircraft accident.”

Moscow has been asked many times to hand over the wreckage and black boxes to the Polish authorities, but each time has said it will only do so when its own inquiry is finished.

Photos of the victims of the Polish presidential plane crash are displayed on the Pilsudski square in Warsaw, on April 17, 2010 © AFP/File / Dimitar Dilkoff

Poland’s previous liberal government — headed at the time by Donald Tusk, Jaroslaw Kaczynski’s arch-rival — blamed bad weather and errors by the Polish pilots and Russian air traffic controllers.

But the PiS-led government, which came to power in November 2015 after eight years in the opposition, rejected those conclusions as a cover-up and launched its own investigation.

Only 10 percent of Poles approve of the decision to exhume the bodies, according to a survey conducted by the IPSOS pollsters published in October.

Last month, more than 200 relatives of 17 of the 96 victims wrote an open letter to President Andrzej Duda, saying they felt “abandoned and distraught in the face of a cruel and heartless act” of exhuming the remains.

The relatives were backed by Poland’s ombudsman, who argues they have the right to appeal.

Duda asked the families to show “understanding” for state prosecutors who are “required by law” to order the exhumations.

Malgorzata Wasserman, a PiS lawmaker whose father died in the crash, supports the exhumations: “I know it’s very painful, but from the legal point of view, it’s indispensable.”

“Don’t forget that we’re in a unique situation in that we have very little material evidence in Poland about the disaster. Like it or not, these bodies constitute rare material evidence.”

But journalist Pawel Deresz who lost his wife, lawmaker Jolanta Szymanek-Deresz, wants her remains left in peace.

“The exhumations are a kind of hunting for clues to prove the absurd theory that president Lech Kaczynski was assassinated,” he said.

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