WARSAW, Poland (AP) — Norway has granted asylum to a Polish man who had fled prison term for fraud and forging of documents, but says the prison term was a form of political persecution under Poland’s right-wing government.
Observers say that Rafal Gawel’s case is the first time political asylum has been granted to a Pole in more than 30 years since the fall of communism in Poland. They see it as another sign that international trust in Poland’s justice system has been undermined by the government, which is putting it under political control.
But Polish Deputy Foreign Minister Pawel Jablonski noted that the probe into Gawel’s financial dealings was opened under the previous liberal government.
The decision by Norway’s appellate immigration body on Sept. 30 to grant refugee status, announced last week, gives Gawel, his wife and daughter the right to reside in Norway for a year. Gawel and his wife have permission to work.
“I am the first Pole who managed to win asylum since communist times,” Gawel told The Associated Press over the phone from Norway.
“I am sure I have saved my life because if I had gone to prison in Poland I couldn’t have expected any good future,” he said. “I was hated by the government.”
He said that during almost two years of proceedings, he gave the immigration body all the documents, including the court sentence, and explained every nuance of his situation.
“It’s not like they don’t know who they have granted asylum to,” Gawel said.
Marianne Granlund, department head at the Immigration Appeals Board, told Norway’s VG newspaper that it is very rare for the appeal instance to grant asylum to citizens from European countries.
“The documentation was so extensive here, and the complainant’s explanation was so convincing that UNE was convinced he was entitled to protection,” she was quoted as saying, referring to the Norwegian acronym for the appeals board.
Gawel’s lawyer, Lukasz Niedzielski, said Monday that asylum in Gawel’s case can be easily extended.
In justifying its decisions, the board argued that Poland’s courts have been politicized and the system of checks and balances destroyed, while the state failed to counteract the activity of far-right organizations.
Earlier, Norway rejected Poland’s request for Gawel’s extradition. Some other courts in Europe have refused to extradite Poles, saying they can’t have a fair trial under Poland’s current government.
The Gawels fled Poland in January 2019, shortly before a Polish court of appeals confirmed his conviction and handed down a two-year prison term on charges of fraud, forging signatures and counterfeiting financial documents. More investigations are underway.
Gawel, who was founder and head of the Monitoring Center on Racist and Xenophobic Behavior in Poland’s eastern city of Bialystok, denies any wrongdoing and insists the conviction is a form of persecution for the group’s activity. He says his organization has exposed ties between local officials, prosecutors and far-right groups in Bialystok.
Jan M. Olsen in Copenhagen contributed to this report.