Pressure mounts on Poland to back away from Holocaust bill

Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki - Poland and Israel are locked in a bitter dispute over Poland's new legislation that is to regulate Holocaust speech. (AP)
Updated 03 February 2018

Pressure mounts on Poland to back away from Holocaust bill

WARSAW: Poland is seeing a resurgence of anti-Semitism over pending legislation that would impose jail terms for suggestions that the nation was complicit in the Holocaust, local minority groups warned, as pressure mounts on the president to veto the bill.
Parliament passed the measure on Thursday, drawing outrage from Israel, US criticism and condemnation from a number of international organizations. President Andrzej Duda has 21 days to decide whether to sign it into law.
The bill would impose prison sentences of up to three years for mentioning the term “Polish death camps” and for suggesting “publicly and against the facts” complicity on the part of the Polish nation or state in Nazi Germany’s crimes.
More than three million of Poland’s 3.2 million Jews were murdered by the Nazis, accounting for about half of the Jews killed in the Holocaust. Jews from across Europe were sent to be killed at death camps built and operated by the Germans on Polish soil, including Auschwitz, Treblinka, Belzec and Sobibor.
According to figures from the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, the Nazis also killed at least 1.9 million non-Jewish Polish civilians.
In a rare show of unity, Polish minority and ethnic groups, including Jewish, Ukrainian and Russian, urged Duda and other authorities to counteract all forms of xenophobia, intolerance and anti-Semitism, although they did not directly call on the president to veto the bill.
“Our particular concern and objection is caused by the numerous and loud manifestations of anti-Semitism that we have been witnessing this week after the (parliament) passed (the Holocaust bill),” the groups said in statement.
Poland, which has gone through a painful public debate in recent years after the publication of research showing some Poles participated in the Nazi atrocities, has long sought to discourage use of the term “Polish camps” to refer to Nazi camps on its territory, arguing that the phrase implies complicity.
On Saturday, German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel said the use of the phrase “Polish death camps” was wrong.
“There is not the slightest doubt as to who was responsible for the extermination camps, operated them and murdered millions of European Jews there: namely Germans,” Gabriel said in a statement.
Israeli officials said the legislation criminalizes basic historical facts. The country’s foreign ministry said on Thursday that Israel “adamantly opposes” the bill’s approval as a whole.
The Israeli embassy in Warsaw said late on Friday that Israel does not oppose Poland’s fight for assuring the phrase “Polish death camps” is never used.
“We would like to use this opportunity to repeat that Israel stands with Poland in using the proper term for the death camps — German Nazi camps,” the embassy said in its statement.
The embassy also said that it has received “a wave of anti-Semitic statements” in the past week.
Poland is one of the most ethnically and religiously homogenous countries in Europe, but before World War Two Jews made up 10 percent of the population and the country also had large Ukrainian, German, Belarussian and other minorities.
Poland’s ruling party, the socially conservative PiS, has reignited debate on the Holocaust as part of a campaign to fuel patriotism since sweeping into power in 2015.
The party says the bill is needed to protect Poland’s reputation and ensure historians recognize that Poles as well as Jews were victims of the Nazis.
Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the chairman of the PiS and de facto the country’s leader, told the public radio Jedynka on Saturday that Poland rejects “anti-Semitism very radically.”
“But we are also a sovereign state and we have a duty to start, because this is only the beginning, the fight against ... this great defamatory campaign against Poland, namely, insulting Poland, blaming us for someone else’s actions.”
Critics of the bill have raised concerns it will curb free speech and could potentially be used against Holocaust survivors or historians.
A US congressional task force on combating anti-Semitism and a number of Jewish groups urged Duda to veto the bill.
The International Auschwitz Council, an advisory body to the office of the Polish prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, said on Friday the bill’s imprecision raised “legitimate concerns about restricting freedom in discovering the truth about the Holocaust.”
Duda has not said whether he will sign the bill, but his spokesman told the Polish state radio Trojka: “The president believes that Poland, as any other country, has the right to defend its good name ... has the right to defend the truth.”
Kaczynski said that Duda should sign the law.
“We must talk to our allies in a way that would allow them to understand that we have no intention of renouncing our dignity,” he said.

Afghan delegates head online for crucial talks

Updated 01 June 2020

Afghan delegates head online for crucial talks

  • Peace hopes rest on virtual forum with Taliban amid virus threat

KABUL: Afghan government and Taliban delegates are expected to begin online talks in mid-June in a bid to end a decades-old conflict in the country, officials told Arab News on Sunday.

While past meetings have been held in person, the latest round of negotiations will take place online because of the threat of coronavirus in the war-ravaged country.

“We see no challenges, the atmosphere and preparations are all set for the talks,” Feraidoon Khawzoon, a spokesman for Abdullah Abdullah, newly appointed chief of the High Council for National Reconciliation, told Arab News.

Negotiations could begin in “the next 10 or 15 days,” he said.

“The announcement of a cease-fire, a reduction in violence and the exchange of prisoners were all requirements for the start of the talks, and we have had progress on them recently,” Khawzoon said.

On Wednesday the Afghan government released a list of 20 delegates due to hold peace talks with the Taliban.

The team will be led by Mohammad Masoom Stanekzai, a former spy chief who has held indirect negotiations with the militants in the past outside Afghanistan, he added.

In the lead-up to the talks, President Ashraf Ghani’s government will release 3,000 more Taliban prisoners, an official close to the Afghan leader told Arab News on condition of anonymity.

More than 2,000 Taliban inmates have already been freed as part of a historic peace deal in February.

In return, the Taliban released hundreds of government troops and, in a surprise move, announced a three-day cease-fire last week for Eid Al-Fitr.

The peace moves follow a buildup in fighting between the two sides despite the pandemic. Taliban attacks killed at least 146 people and injured 430 during Ramadan. 

Fears had been growing that the peace deal signed on Feb. 29 between the Taliban and the US would collapse.

The joint cease-fire followed talks in Qatar last week between the Taliban and Zalmay Khalilzad, US special representative for Afghanistan.

Khalilzad later traveled to Kabul for meetings with Afghan political leaders over a reduction in violence and an exchange of prisoners. 

“We welcome the Taliban’s decision to observe a cease-fire during Eid, as well as the Afghan government reciprocating and announcing its own,” Khalilzad said last Sunday.

Increasing Taliban attacks on government troops, and political infighting between Ghani and Abdullah over who would assume office as president, have delayed the talks.

After Washington failed to reconcile Ghani and Abdullah, both leaders agreed two weeks ago to share power, with Ghani leading the country for another five years and Abdullah appointed as chief of the peace talks.

Khalilzad described the cease-fire agreement as a “momentous opportunity that should not be missed,” and pressed both sides to agree on a new date to start negotiations.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also urged the two sides to start peace talks, with the release of prisoners as a first step. 

Pompeo said that he expected the Taliban “to adhere to their commitment not to allow released prisoners to return to the battlefield.”

Ghani said the release of Taliban inmates would be “expedited” and that his government’s negotiating team was ready to begin talks “as soon as possible.”

Zabihullah Mujahid, a spokesman for the Taliban, could not be reached for comment on the Taliban’s stance.

In the past, the group has insisted it will take part in talks with Kabul only after all 5,000 Taliban prisoners are freed.

Experts hope the latest developments are a step in the right direction.

“The Taliban do not seem to have any reservations about the structure of the government team, so the hope is high that the talks will take place by June 15,” Wahidullah Ghazikhail, an analyst, told Arab News.

“Some of Taliban’s field commanders seem to be divided on the talks, hoping to capture power again after the departure of US forces (by next spring), while the political leaders are pushing for a political settlement,” he said.