June 27, 2018 / 7:36 AM / 6 months ago

Poland backs down on Holocaust law, moves to end jail terms

WARSAW (Reuters) - Polish lawmakers voted on Wednesday to water down a Holocaust law that angered the United States and Israel, and remove parts that imposed jail terms on people who suggest the nation was complicit in Nazi crimes.

Poland's Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki speaks during debate about Holocaust bill at lower house of Parliament in Warsaw, Poland June 27, 2018. Agencja Gazeta/Slawomir Kaminski via REUTERS

The lower house of parliament backed the changes in an emergency session hours after Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki asked it to amend the four-month-old law. An upper house vote is expected later on Wednesday.

The unexpected u-turn came as the ruling nationalist Law and Justice party (PiS) seeks to bolster security ties with Washington and faces heightened scrutiny from the EU.

It also came the morning after Poland’s state-run company PGNiG said it had signed long-term agreements on liquefied natural gas (LNG) supplies from the United States.

The law as it went into effect in March imposed jail sentences of up to three years for anyone who used the phrase “Polish death camps” or suggested “publicly and against the facts” that the Polish nation or state was complicit in Nazi Germany’s crimes.

The nationalist, right-wing government said at the time the law was needed to protect Poland’s reputation. Israel and its ally the United States said it amounted to a historical whitewash.

Morawiecki did not say what precisely had prompted his morning announcement. But he told parliament the terms of the existing law had already done their job by raising awareness of Poland’s role in World War Two - the government says Poles were the victims of Nazi aggression, not fellow perpetrators.

The law had been meant as “a kind of shock” and courts would still be able impose fines, he added.

“The purpose of this law was and still is one fundamental message: fight for the truth, fight for the truth of World War Two and post-war times,” Morawiecki said.

“A publisher in the United States or in Germany will think twice before publishing today an article using the expression ‘Polish SS”, ‘Polish gestapo’ or ‘Polish concentration camps’ if he risks a lawsuit and a fine of 100 million euro or dollars,” Morawiecki added.

“THIS IS ALL CONNECTED”

One PiS lawmaker, speaking on condition of anonymity, would only say the changes had been agreed as “a result of our analysis of the situation”.

“The international discussion, and especially in the United States had an impact. This is all connected,” the lawmaker added.

Warsaw has been seeking security and energy assurances from Washington as a deterrence policy against Russia - and last month broke from the EU’s outright rejection of Washington’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal.

European Union ministers began an unprecedented discussion on Tuesday of threats to the rule of law in Poland, urging Warsaw to step back from contested judicial reforms they say put its courts under more political control.

About 3 million Jews who lived in pre-war Poland were murdered by the Nazis, accounting for about half of all Jews killed in the Holocaust.

Poland's members of lower house of parliament during debate about Holocaust bill in Warsaw, June 27, 2018. Agencja Gazeta/Slawomir Kaminski via REUTERS

Jews from across the continent were sent to be killed at death camps built and operated by Germans in occupied Poland - home to Europe’s biggest Jewish community at the time - including Auschwitz, Treblinka, Belzec and Sobibor.

Thousands of Poles risked their lives to protect Jewish neighbors during the war. But research published since the fall of communism in 1989 showed that thousands also killed Jews or denounced those who hid them to the Nazi occupiers, challenging the national narrative that Poland was solely a victim.

Additional reporting by Agnieszka Barteczko, Anna Koper, Anna Wlodarczak-Semczuk, Pawel Florkiewicz; Editing by Andrew Heavens

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