The anti-racism activist fled on New Year’s Eve 2018 with his wife and toddler in search of refuge in Norway, where political refugees from desperate corners of the world have long been welcome.
But activist Rafal Gawel was unable to escape a war-torn country. He fled Poland, a member of the democratic and peaceful European Union. Although his original asylum application was denied in Norway, an appeal committee there approved his application last month.
It was a dramatic chain of events that underscored concerns elsewhere in Europe that Polish democracy – once considered a great success story of the post-Soviet era – has declined under the right-wing coalition that has ruled the country for the past five years.
While Mr Gawel’s case is complicated, the asylum decision reflected concerns about political influence in the Polish judiciary. The Norwegian Immigration Service said they had granted him asylum because he had faced political persecution in Poland, a rare case in a country in Europe that offers such protection to a European Union citizen. Norway is not a member of the bloc, but has close ties with it.
47-year-old Gawel, a controversial and well-known artist and human rights activist in Poland, is a complicated figure at the center of an international dispute over democratic rights. He faced legal problems in Poland and fled the country shortly before he was sentenced to two years in prison for fraud and misappropriation of funds.
He says, without producing any evidence, that the charges against him were an attempt by the Polish government to contain him and that the trial has been rigged.
The Polish government has determined that the 2013 fraud allegations were made against him under a previous, more centrist administration. A non-profit group in Poland funded by financier George Soros has accused Mr. Gawel of mismanaging the funds allocated to his organization. the center for monitoring racist and xenophobic behavior. These allegations were used against him in the trial.
Mr Gawel said the Polish government targeted him for his work documenting a growing number of hate crimes in the country and ordered far-right militants to harm him physically. “The decision to give me asylum saved my life,” he said in an interview.
The Norwegian Board of Appeal, which examined and approved Mr Gawel’s asylum application, concluded that the purpose of the legal proceedings was to limit his activities and that he could be in danger if he returned to Poland.
It emerged that Mr. Gawel “risked political persecution by government officials under the guise of and under the guise of criminal proceedings aimed at restricting his freedom of expression and activity through imprisonment and possibly discredit”. The conclusion, which was not published by Norway, was read to the New York Times by Lukasz Niedzielski, Mr Gawel’s lawyer.
Gunnar Ekelove-Slydal, the acting general secretary of the Oslo-based Norwegian Helsinki Committee, a human rights organization, said Norway’s decision is a clear sign of growing concerns in Europe about a democratic relapse in Poland.
“The confidence of European states in the Polish judiciary is falling apart,” he said.
Polish Deputy Foreign Minister Pawel Jablonski said in an interview that Mr Gawel’s conviction was based on criminal charges. “He was convicted by two courts,” said the minister. “We suspect that his words have manipulated them,” he added, referring to the Norwegian immigration authorities.
Poland has been fighting with its partners in Europe over the past few years over concerns that its democracy is being undermined by the right-wing coalition led by the Law and Justice Party, which took power in 2015. The government has actively worked to restrict freedom of expression and LGBTQ rights – and has also weakened the independence of the judiciary by taking greater control over the prosecution and judges.
“The ruling Law and Justice government has taken control of the judiciary and raised serious concerns about the independence of courts, judges and prosecutors for the past five years,” said Lydia Gall, a senior researcher, Eastern Europe at Human Rights Watch.
The European Union has imposed modest sanctions on Poland, and some members of the bloc have also taken individual action in response. That year, Germany and the Netherlands refused to extradite Polish citizens under European arrest warrants to Poland because they feared they would not get a fair trial.
Human rights experts said Mr Gawel’s case is significant as EU citizens are rarely granted asylum in other European countries. Of the tens of thousands of people who have granted asylum in Norway over the past decade, only 18 were EU citizens, according to the country’s immigration statistics. According to official statistics, a Pole was granted asylum last year, but human rights experts said they were unaware of the case. Norway does not usually provide details on specific asylum cases.
Jakub Godzimirski, an expert on Polish-Norwegian relations at the Norwegian Institute for International Affairs, said that some Poles applied for asylum after the end of communist rule in Poland in the early 1990s, but most were denied.
“The threshold for asylum from a European Union country in Norway is pretty high,” he said.
In the interview, Mr Gawel said that he had left Poland by car even though his passport had been confiscated and that consular staff from a European country he did not want to identify helped him and his family to reach Norway.
Mr Gawel said that he and his wife Karolina Krupa got married a few days before they escaped. “We picked up the marriage certificate in the morning shortly before we left and then had our car checked by wiretapping and GPS experts,” he said. “We felt like refugees and we were refugees.”
Norway initially rejected his asylum application, but appealed the decision and was granted refugee status on September 30th.
In the interview, Mr Gawel denied any wrongdoing and said he had submitted documents to the Norwegian immigration authorities proving his innocence.
“I was targeted because my organization exposed links between local authorities, government officials and far-right groups,” he said, adding that his group had filed over 400 complaints of hate crimes in Poland this year.
Mr. Gawel had also quarreled with a non-profit group operating in Poland. Ewa Kulik-Bielinska, the director of the Stefan Batory Foundation, an independent foundation established by Mr Soros, said Mr Gawel had abused the $ 20,000 subsidy granted to him.
Mr. Gawel attributed the incident to a difference between the foundation and the correct procedures for handling money.
The judge who sentenced him in 2019 said in her decision that Mr. Gawel used loans and donations for his own ends. “The disposal of public money requires transparency and honesty,” said judge Alina Kaminska, according to Polish news reports.
Mr. Gawel declined to provide the documents granting him asylum at the request of the Times. The Norwegian Immigration Board of Appeal confirmed that he had been granted asylum but declined to comment on the details.
Mr. Niedzielski, his lawyer, said he hoped Norway’s decision would “fundamentally change” the way European countries deal with Poland, although experts said the Polish government was unlikely to be pressured to change course.
However, Ekelove-Slydal from the Norwegian Helsinki Committee said: “If such decisions have concrete consequences for economic cooperation or investment, it could spark new reflections on the courts in Poland.”
“Confidence in the Polish judiciary has been undermined,” he said, “which means that a fundamental pillar of European cooperation is under threat.”
Elian Peltier reported from London, Monika Pronczuk from Brussels and Henrik Pryser Libell from Oslo, Norway. Anatol Magdziarz reported from Warsaw.