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After Fleeing Poland, an Antiracism Activist Finds Refuge in Norway

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The antiracism activist fled on New Year’s Eve in 2018 along with his spouse and toddler, searching for refuge in Norway, which has lengthy welcomed political refugees from determined corners of the world.

But the activist, Rafal Gawel, wasn’t escaping a war-torn nation. He was fleeing Poland, a member of the democratic and peaceable European Union. Although his preliminary request for asylum in Norway was rejected, final month an appeals board there granted his request.

It was a dramatic chain of occasions that underscored considerations elsewhere in Europe that Poland’s democracy — as soon as thought to be an amazing success story of the post-Soviet period — has regressed beneath the right-wing coalition that has dominated the nation for the previous 5 years.

While Mr. Gawel’s case is difficult, the asylum resolution mirrored worries about political affect within the Polish judicial system. Norway’s immigration service mentioned it had granted him asylum on the grounds that he confronted political persecution in Poland, a uncommon occasion of a rustic in Europe providing such safety to a citizen of the European Union. Norway shouldn’t be a member of the bloc, however maintains shut relations with it.

A controversial and well-known artist and human rights activist in Poland, Mr. Gawel, 47, is a sophisticated determine on the middle of a world tussle over democratic rights. He has had authorized troubles in Poland, fleeing the nation simply earlier than being sentenced to jail for 2 years for fraud and misappropriation of funds.

He says, with out offering proof, that the costs in opposition to him have been an effort by Poland’s authorities to rein him in and that the trial was rigged.

The Polish authorities has famous that the fraud costs have been introduced in opposition to him beneath a earlier, extra centrist administration in 2013. And a nonprofit group in Poland funded by the financier George Soros has accused Mr. Gawel of mismanaging funds that it allotted to his group, the Center for Monitoring Racist and Xenophobic Behavior. Those costs have been used within the courtroom case in opposition to him.

Mr. Gawel mentioned that Poland’s authorities had focused him over his work documenting a rising variety of hate crimes within the nation, and that it had ordered far-right militants to bodily hurt him. “The decision to grant me asylum saved my life,” he mentioned in an interview.

The Norwegian appeals board that reviewed and permitted Mr. Gawel’s asylum software concluded that the aim of the courtroom case was to curtail his actions, and that he may be in peril if he returned to Poland.

It discovered that Mr. Gawel risked “political persecution from government officials, under the cover and appearance of a criminal case where the purpose has been to limit his freedom of speech and activity by imprisoning him, and possibly also discrediting him.” The conclusion, which was not made public by Norway, was learn out to The New York Times by Lukasz Niedzielski, Mr. Gawel’s lawyer.

Gunnar Ekelove-Slydal, the appearing secretary normal on the Oslo-based Norwegian Helsinki Committee, a human rights group, mentioned Norway’s resolution was a transparent signal of mounting considerations in Europe over democratic backsliding in Poland.

“The trust toward the Polish judiciary among European states is falling apart,” he mentioned.

But Poland’s deputy minister of overseas affairs, Pawel Jablonski, mentioned in an interview that Mr. Gawel’s conviction was based mostly on felony costs. “He was convicted by two courts,” the minister mentioned. “We suspect that they might have been manipulated by his words,” he added, referring to Norway’s immigration providers.

Poland has in recent times been at loggerheads with its companions in Europe over considerations that its democracy is being undermined by the right-wing coalition led by the Law and Justice Party that took energy in 2015. The authorities has actively labored to restrict freedom of speech and L.G.B.T.Q. rights — and has additionally weakened judicial independence, assuming larger controls over the prosecutor’s workplace and judges.

“The ruling Law and Justice government has used the past five years to put the judiciary under its control, raising serious concerns about the independence of courts, judges and prosecutors,” mentioned Lydia Gall, a senior researcher on Eastern Europe at Human Rights Watch.

The European Union has imposed modest sanctions on Poland, and a number of other of the bloc’s members have additionally taken particular person actions in response. This yr, Germany and the Netherlands refused to extradite Polish residents who have been beneath European arrest warrants to Poland over fears that they’d not obtain truthful trials.

Human rights specialists mentioned that Mr. Gawel’s case was important given how hardly ever E.U. residents are granted asylum in different European nations. Of the tens of hundreds of individuals to be granted asylum by Norway previously decade, solely 18 have been E.U. residents, based on the nation’s immigration statistics. One Pole was given asylum final yr, based on official statistics, however the human rights specialists mentioned they weren’t conscious of that case. Norway often doesn’t present particulars about particular asylum circumstances.

Jakub Godzimirski, an skilled on Polish-Norwegian relations on the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs, mentioned that some Poles utilized for asylum after the top of Communist rule in Poland within the early 1990s, however that almost all have been refused.

“The threshold to get asylum from a European Union country in Norway is quite high,” he mentioned.

In the interview, Mr. Gawel mentioned he had left Poland by automotive although his passport had been confiscated, and that the consular employees of a European nation that he declined to determine had helped him and his household attain Norway.

Mr. Gawel mentioned that he and his spouse, Karolina Krupa, acquired married simply days earlier than fleeing. “We picked up the marriage certificate in the morning, just before leaving, and then got our car checked by wiretap and GPS experts,” he mentioned. “We felt like refugees, and we were refugees.”

Norway initially rejected his asylum request, however he appealed the choice and was granted refugee standing on Sept. 30.

In the interview, Mr. Gawel denied any wrongdoing and mentioned he had introduced the Norwegian immigration authorities with paperwork proving his innocence.

“I was targeted because my organization exposed ties between local authorities, government figures and far-right groups,” he mentioned, including that his group had lodged over 400 complaints about hate crimes dedicated in Poland this yr.

Mr. Gawel had additionally been at odds with a nonprofit group working in Poland. Ewa Kulik-Bielinska, the pinnacle of the Stefan Batory Foundation, an unbiased basis established by Mr. Soros, mentioned Mr. Gawel had misused the equal of $20,000 of subsidies that it awarded him.

Mr. Gawel attributed the incident to a distinction with the muse over the proper procedures for dealing with cash.

The decide who sentenced him in 2019 mentioned in her ruling that Mr. Gawel had used loans and donations for his personal goals. “Disposing of public money requires transparency and honesty,” mentioned the decide, Alina Kaminska, based on Polish information stories.

Mr. Gawel declined to point out the paperwork granting him asylum when requested by The Times. The Norwegian Immigration Appeals Board confirmed that he had been granted asylum, however declined to touch upon the specifics.

Mr. Niedzielski, his lawyer, mentioned he hoped Norway’s resolution can be “a game changer” in how European nations take care of Poland, though specialists mentioned it was unlikely to push the Polish authorities to vary course.

But, mentioned Mr. Ekelove-Slydal, from the Norwegian Helsinki Committee, “if such decisions are followed by concrete consequences, on economic cooperation or investments, then it could trigger new reflections on the courts in Poland.”

“Trust in Poland’s judiciary has been undermined,” he mentioned, “which means that a fundamental pillar of European cooperation is threatened.”

Elian Peltier reported from London, Monika Pronczuk from Brussels, and Henrik Pryser Libell from Oslo, Norway. Anatol Magdziarz contributed reporting from Warsaw.

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