Restitution

“As for restitutions, to nobody in particular do I owe any, but as for those I owe to the realm, I hope in the mercy of God.” The words of Louis XIV, the passing of the glories of whose reign one feels France still regrets, revolution or no revolution. Be that as it may, the mercy of God may well be needed, for restitutions owed, if not to the realm, but to the city of Warsaw, with news that nine more individuals have been charged in a continuing investigation into a property restitution scandal in Warsaw.

Poland’s justice minister, Zbigniew Ziobro, who also happens to be the country’s prosecutor general, told reporters on Monday that the charges included suspected corruption amounting to some PLN 50 million (EUR 11.58 million, USD 13.32 million) arising from the individuals’ attempt to take possession of real estate in Warsaw by unlawful means. Prosecutor Michał Ostrowski said that a former Warsaw City Hall official who was a deputy director in charge of real estate management was among those indicted, alongside three lawyers and a former ministry of justice employee.

In many parts of the world, the intersection of real estate and local government provides a potentially rich seam of corrupt activity, from land acquisition to planning, and Warsaw, if these allegations prove to be correct, is no exception. Indeed, according to a report of a special parliamentary commission released on Monday, less than two weeks before local government elections, the losses to Warsaw stand at some PLN 12.2 billion (EUR 3.25 billion, USD 3.25 billion) in property unlawfully returned to private owners. The total value of property that reverted into private hands in Warsaw had exceeded PLN 21.5 billion by 2016.

As reported by Polish Radio’s IAR news agency, the head of the commission, Patryk Jaki, a deputy justice minister who is also running for mayor of Warsaw in the upcoming elections, said that property restitution in Warsaw after 1989 was often “criminal in nature” and marred by corruption and the existence of a “reprivatisation mafia”. Last December, Poland’s Central Anti-Corruption Bureau (CAB) detained three Warsaw City Hall officials suspected of accepting bribes in exchange for approving property restitution and compensation claims.

The special parliamentary commission began last year to investigate the scandal over the restitution of real estate in Warsaw that has already seen the dismissal of several officials at Warsaw City Hall and calls for the mayor, Hanna Gronkiewicz-Waltz, to resign. The commission aims to either uphold the restitution decisions or to revoke them and decide that owners can be stripped of unlawfully obtained property.

Inevitably, the scandal has a political element. The Law and Justice government says that the commission has helped to address blatant cases of injustice amid allegations of a massive web of malpractice involving Warsaw City Hall officials, while opposition maintains that the commission encroaches on the powers of the courts. Gronkiewicz-Waltz, who has been the mayor of Warsaw since 2006, and who was once a leading figure in the opposition Civic Platform party, has refused to appear before the commission, arguing that it is unconstitutional.

The origins of the scandal date back to the seizure of property under the Bierut Decree from October 1945, named after former Polish communist leader Bolesław Bierut, which legalised the confiscation of private property. This led to thousands of buildings being taken from their owners. Since the fall of communism in 1989, it has been possible to submit claims for the return of such confiscated property although, absent specific legislation to deal with restitution claims, the process is far from straight forward. This, given the passage of time, also increases the scope for skulduggery by those so minded.

It seems that the scandal cannot simply be dismissed as political infighting. According to the CAB (last December) a total of 68 investigations were under way into suspected property restitution irregularities, involving some 200 addresses in Warsaw, most being valuable plots of land and residential buildings worth millions of zlotys. And the commission also examined the reprivatisation of a residential building at in Warsaw to which Gronkiewicz-Waltz’s husband acquired part of the rights in 2003.

Nevertheless, with the minister of justice and prosecutor general, and the head of the commission and candidate for mayor of Warsaw being in political opposition to the current mayor of Warsaw under whose watch much of the alleged corruption took place, there is a need to ensure the entire process is above board. This is a good example of why there is so much concern about the changes to the appointment of judges brought by this government. With a politician now having, short of great self-restraint, the ability potentially to influence the judicial process, it is more important than ever that not only must justice be done but it must be seen to be done – rather than be seen to be believed.

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