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SC on freedom of historical debate surrounding Augustów Roundup

The Supreme Court dismissed the action for the infringement of personal interests of S.W., a priest, in the book titled “Przerwane życiorysy” (“Interrupted Lives”) written by the journalist Alicja Maciejewska. The action involved two fragments of biographical entries concerning close relatives of the priest and the priest himself.

The publication issued in 2010 by the Institute of National Remembrance in Białystok touched upon a controversial historical event known as the Augustów Roundup, a massacre of the Home Army partisans and their supporters conducted by the NKVD, the Red Army and the Office of Security (Communist Poland’s secret police). About 600 people vanished into thin air. The book, which according to its author is not a historical publication, contains numerous biographical entries and accounts of meetings with witnesses to those events. In the 1980s Ms Maciejewska talked to witnesses that were still alive and recorded their accounts of the tragedy.

S.W. lost four family members in the roundup. The priest considers two sentences appearing in the book as an affront to his honour. These are: “Some facts are disclosed in a whisper, in fear of the family authority figures – the son and brother of the roundup’s victims, a priest who in late 1980s when we collected information about the missing persons did not allow his siblings to talk to us” and “This is the family version of events, censored, I’m afraid, by the said domestic authority”.

Having considered the case in a trial, the Regional Court in Białystok found the infringement of personal interests. It ordered Ms Maciejewska to publish an apology in large national dailies and pay five thousand zloty to Caritas. Following the appeal, the second instance court imposed a more lenient sentence ordering the defendant to publish an apology in the local press and withdrawing the financial sanction.

The Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights has been monitoring the trial since the filing of the appeal against the decision of the first instance court. The HFHR has also presented an amicus curiae brief in the case.

In its decision of 18 June 2014, the Supreme Court ruled that no violation of S.W. honour had taken place. In addition, the Court ordered the claimant to pay court fees of PLN 6,000. The SC noted that statements contained in the book were not meant to be offensive to anyone. It made a distinction between statements about facts and assessments and classified most of those appearing in the book as subjective opinions of Ms Maciejewska. The Supreme Court delivered a favourable opinion of the author’s attempts to compare and contrast various accounts of events and to assess them in terms of their credibility.

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