Posted on Jun 29, 2021
Fresh controversy is likely to erupt over Polish NGO the Open Dialogue Foundation (ODF), after board member Bartosz Kramek (pictured above) was arrested by Polish authorities and is apparently facing charges of embezzling and laundering some 5 million zloty (roughly €1.1 million).
After Kramek’s arrest on June 23rd, the Lublin District Court approved on June 25th prosecutors’ request for a three-month detention, a sign that they believe the accusations against him are credible. His wife and the head of the ODF, Lyudmila Kozlowska (pictured below left), has roundly rejected the allegations, arguing that her husband’s detention constitutes political persecution on behalf of the Polish state after the couple’s criticism of the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party.
Chalking legal problems up to political victimization has become somewhat of a pattern in Europe. When Czech police recently submitted a 34,000-page dossier to support their motion to indict PM Andrej Babis on charges that he fraudulently misused European Union subsidies, the embattled premier immediately dismissed the investigation as politically motivated, while former Portuguese PM José Socrates has deployed the same tactic to push back against a judge’s recent decision that he must stand trial for charges of money laundering and forgery.
Fugitive Bulgarian gambling tycoon Vassil Bozhkov—nicknamed “the Skull” and described as “Bulgaria’s most infamous gangster” in a leaked U.S. diplomatic cable—has also claimed that extortion and bribery charges against him were politically motivated.
Many of these claims of political persecution are easy enough to debunk as desperate attempts to downplay substantial evidence of wrongdoing. The Open Dialogue Foundation case, however, poses a thornier problem. Many of the concerns which ODF has raised about the degradation in the rule of law in Poland since the PiS took power are legitimate ones, and it’s not out of the realm of possibility that Polish authorities would strike out at a political opponent. Nevertheless, in ODF’s case there have been sufficient red flags raised by journalists and lawmakers even outside Poland to cast doubt on the association’s claims that the charges against Kramek are purely politically motivated.
Kramek’s arrest the latest wrinkle for ODF
According to Polish prosecutors, Bartosz Kramek’s detention stems from an inspection of the Open Dialogue Foundation’s tax records, which suggested that the organisation’s actual sources of funding did not correspond to what was listed in official documentation.
In particular, Polish tax authorities have called into question the legality of large money transfers which Kramek’s company Silk Road, apparently one of ODF’s biggest donors, received from offshore firms registered in the Seychelles, Belize and Panama. What’s more, regional prosecutors plan to present “extensive evidence”—including witness testimony, bank statements and a 40-volume case file— that Kramek issued 46 VAT invoices, totalling some €1.1 million, for fictitious consulting services, then attempted to conceal the criminal origin of these funds by transferring them to ODF and other accounts.
The latest accusations are particularly serious and could carry a prison term of up to ten years – indeed, questions have swirled around the Open Dialogue Foundation for a long time, well beyond Poland’s borders. A committee of the Moldovan Parliament investigated the organisation back in 2018, concluding that ODF was funded by money laundering schemes and transactions with Russian military firms under international sanctions— and that its ostensible efforts to promote the rule of law in post-Soviet states were in fact a front for a lobbying practice. The Moldovans are hardly the only ones to accuse ODF of being a lobby shop in disguise. Just this March, British MP Ian Liddell-Grainger asked the Council of Europe to investigate the Open Dialogue Foundation, which he claimed had been bragging on social media about the undue influence it held over PACE members.
Poland’s democratic backsliding leaves the door open
Under different circumstances, the Open Dialogue Foundation would have found precious little support in Brussels following the repeated questions raised over its funding and motivations. The picture is muddied, however, by the situation in Poland. The ODF has managed to deflect some of the criticism levied at it because one of the central tenets of its claim that the Polish government is attempting to repress the country’s democratic opposition is sound.
The rule of law in Poland has, in fact, steadily declined over the past five years, to the point that one recent analysis warned of “a total breakdown in the rule of law in Poland which, in turn, represents a threat to the interconnected legal order that underpins the EU”. The situation is so serious that the EU has been forced to activate its rule of law framework and trigger Article 7 procedures against Poland. Successive laws have chipped away at the independence of the judiciary since PiS gained a majority, and Poland routinely ignores many national and European rulings, including decisions made by courts of last resort.
These are grave issues that European policymakers must take stronger steps to address. At the same time, they cannot become a blanket excuse for people facing credible accusations of criminal behaviour. Poland, along with several other European Union member states, has legitimate problems with the rule of law; at the same time, they must also maintain the ability to investigate individuals suspected of wrongdoing and hold them to account if they are found guilty.
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