The district prosecutor's office in the border town of Sokółka dropped all charges against Weronika Klemba, a 20-year-old aid worker who in March was accused of helping to smuggle migrants across the Poland-Belarus border. The prosecution had previously demanded that she be detained for three months.
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Since last August, the northeastern part of Poland has been the site of migration pressures and an associated humanitarian crisis. Given the government’s hardline stance on immigration, activists and aid workers who organized help risked entering into conflict with authorities. The story of the 20-year-old Weronika Klemba shows just how serious the Polish government is about politicizing the plight of refugees.

The District Prosecutor's Office in Sokółka charged the young woman with aiding and abetting illegal immigration at the Poland-Belarus border. She faced a sentence of up to 8 years in prison. Earlier, a local court rejected the prosecution’s request for a three-month-long temporary detention. The prosecutor's office also referred Weronika for psychiatric examination.

A bitter victory

Fortunately, her case was now discontinued. The Club of Catholic Intelligentsia (which supported Weronika during the proceedings) issued a statement signed by its president Jakub Kiersnowski. It reads: "We view this decision as a bitter victory, following successive rulings by Polish courts on the illegal character of pushbacks enforced by the border authorities, i.e. the deportation of migrants and refugees behind a wall of barbed wire. It is sad, sad and disappointing, that our volunteers, acting within the limits of the law, have to contend with authorities that abuse their rights".

It further notes: "From the beginning, we have been convinced that the whole case is either a dramatic 'mistake' testifying to the incompetence of the prosecutor in charge of Weronika's case or a deliberate act to intimidate her and others who bring humanitarian aid to people near the Polish-Belarusian border whose life and health is in danger".

The activist's defense attorney Paweł Murawski, associated with the law firm Pietrzak, Sidor and Partners, comments on the prosecutor's decision:

- I am pleased with the decision, especially since the basis for the discontinuation is the prosecutor's finding that the charges brought up against the suspect do not contain the elements of a criminal act. It's important that the prosecutor decided at the end - almost a year after the arrest - that helping those in need is not punishable in Poland. I regret that this was preceded by the groundless detention of Weronika Klemba, the pointless request to arrest her, and the unnecessary and victimizing referral of the suspect for psychiatric examination. It is regrettable that for almost a year Weronika was subjected to unnecessary stress in order to finally decide that her behavior is not a crime. In turn, this decision is based mainly on the materials already revealed on the day of her arrest. I believe that this admission of error by the prosecutor's office will set the right standard in similar cases.

Białystok. Sąd okręgowy, Weronika, aktywistka Klubu Inteligencji Katolickiej, oskarżona przez prokuraturę o pomocnictwo w nielegalnym przekraczaniu granicy uchodźcom
Białystok. Sąd okręgowy, Weronika, aktywistka Klubu Inteligencji Katolickiej, oskarżona przez prokuraturę o pomocnictwo w nielegalnym przekraczaniu granicy uchodźcom  Fot. Grzegorz Dąbrowski

Detained for 48 hours

Weronika Klemba, a student and activist, was detained by police on March 25 after she drove an empty car outside a no-passing zone after providing food and clothes to refugees.  She spent 48 hours at the police station, and a search was conducted at her family home in Warsaw. She remained handcuffed the entire time during her interrogation.

In a message published on their website after Weronika's detention, local police claimed that: "the police officer received a report of a suspicious car in the area near the village of Poniatowicze. Having reached the village, officers spotted a Mitsubishi with Warsaw license plates. Behind its wheel sat a 20-year-old resident of the Mazovia region. First, the woman claimed she was driving to a store, and then that she was carrying medicine to immigrants. However, she had neither groceries nor medicine. Moments later, the true purpose of her trip came to light. As police officers determined, she was going to pick up 4 Cuban citizens who had illegally crossed the Polish-Belarusian border. The 20-year-old was detained and taken into police custody, and her car was taken to a guarded parking lot".

Criminalizing humanitarian aid

The Club of Catholic Intelligentsia, which set up a Crisis Intervention Point in the border town of Gródek, issued a statement after the court in Sokółka rejected sending Weronika into a three-month-long detention. Among other things, the statement read: "In our opinion, the charges lack any basis and are part of the policy of intimidation of people and organizations providing assistance to refugees and migrants at the Polish-Belarusian border. We strongly oppose these practices. We do not understand why there seem to be two categories of refugees: those from the territory of Ukraine and those from the territory of Belarus, the former being treated with kindness and empathy, and the latter with hostility. Similarly, we see different categories of aid workers. As Christians, we see the face of Christ in all people fleeing war and violence: the trapped, the naked, the newcomer, the wounded...".

Weronika herself published a lengthy, poignant confession on the Facebook page of the Border Group organization (a network bringing together volunteers helping foreigners on the Polish-Belarusian border).

She wrote: "My offense is that I did not want to let people die who are not welcome by Polish authorities. Giving warm soup to people stranded in the forest - only so much, because in the end there was nothing more I could do, but also apparently too much, because this act was enough to deprive me of basic rights and dignity for two days".

She pointed out: "This theatre was organized specifically to intimidate all of us who want to help and will continue to do so. According to the court verdict, pushbacks are illegal, which is why the border guards don't want any witnesses. They are afraid that one day they will have to answer for their actions. I hope they will".

In turn, attorney Murawski said:

- Those carrying humanitarian aid cannot be held criminally responsible for it. I am saddened that in the 21st century, the problem for public authorities in Poland is people who want to bring help to others. It clearly seeks, as in the case of Ms. Weronika, to discourage such actions by young people.

The Border Group commented on the court's decision on Twitter: "We welcome this decision, at the same time, however, we stress that the detention should never have happened in the first place. Subsequent court rulings confirm that the deportations and the conduct of the border authorities are unlawful, and activists continue to face the criminalization of aid".

***

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