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Poland's Right-Wing Government Is Now Targeting Judges, Personally

Polish Judge Joanna Knobel has became the victim of a hate mail campaign targeting, among other things, her Jewish background. With new threats being sent to other judges in recent weeks, the country is faced with a dangerous deepening of the divide that puts the institution of a free judiciary.

Women walking through the streets of Poznań, Poland.

Women walking through the streets of Poznań, Poland.

Piotr Żytnicki

POZNAŃ — A witch hunt promoted by the Polish government and amplified by state media has led to a flood of hate mail and threats targeting a judge who recently acquitted pro-choice protesters who demonstrated during a Catholic mass in 2021.

Judge Joanna Knobel became a target of Poland's current ruling party and Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro in March, when she acquitted 32 people accused of interrupting mass in a Poznań Cathedral. This was the longest trial for peaceful protests since the Law and Justice party (PiS) took power in 2015.

The protesters had demonstrated in a cathedral in Oct. 2021, after Poland’s government dramatically restricted access to abortions. The archbishop of Poznań, Stanisław Gądecki, publicly thanked the country’s leaders for the new abortion laws. In response, masses of young people stood in front of the altar with signs. The priest stopped delivering his sermon, and the police were called in to arrest the protesters.

Now, following the acquittal in March, a slew of comments, both in letters addressed to judge Knobel, and left online, have left her fearing for her personal safety.

“This is what a common whore for sale looks like. Her name is Joanna Knobel and she represents lawlessness."

“The pathological judge Joanna Knobel stated that the protest was not malicious. This clearly proves that she is intellectually disabled!"

This is not the first time that Poland's judiciary has come under fire from the current ruling party Law and Justice, also known as PiS. Last month, the top EU court struck down PiS's judicial overhauls, which included publishing online declarations of judges' memberships of associations, non-profit foundations or political parties. The European Court of Justice declared that these policies were anti-democratic, that they violated judges' right to privacy, and that they undermined the rule of law in Poland.

These interventions have caused the EU to have "serious doubts" on the future "independence and impartiality" of the Polish court, as expressed in a statement by the European commission.

In 2021, Poland was fined 1.1 million euros per day by the European Court for failing to dissolve earlier judicial reforms, which included a newly established body to oversee its supreme court judges, which had the power to lower their salaries or lift their immunity from prosecution.

Last year, the situation became so grave that several Polish judges went on a "Constitution Tour" of Poland, in an attempt to defend law and democracy in the face of the ruling party's increasing attacks on judicial institutions.

Ahead of national elections this fall, the Polish judiciary has once again become a target of right-wing political mobilization. But rather than attacking the judiciary as a whole, the ruling party has now decided to go after specific judges like Knobel on a personal level.

On Monday, Gazeta Wyborcza reported that a judge who sentenced a far-right militant, Marika Matuszak, to three years in prison for aggravated robbery, was also receiving threats and being accused of political biases.

Judges told Gazeta Wyborcza that they cannot recall a similar situation ever taking place, with correspondence targeting Knobel flooding in from all over Poland. This is the result of a campaign unleashed after the verdict by politicians and government media.

Jewish background

Knobel, the judge, agreed that the defendants interfered with the mass, but concluded that they didn’t do so maliciously, which is a necessary condition for the crime. According to her, the defendants had the right to protest in the cathedral, because women’s rights had in fact been limited. In her view, the separation of church and state is a fiction in Poland, which means that protesting against government decisions can include protesting against church actions.

The first person who wrote to Knobel to complain was Robert B. In an email addressed to the court, he argues against the final verdict: “The verbal justification (given by the judge) is illogical and even ridiculous. The action (of the protesters) was malicious. What could be more malicious than preventing someone from praying? Such verdicts make citizens lose what little faith they have in the judiciary and its impartiality."

The wave of complaints, issued by Robert and others, criticize Knobel's decision, without making defamatory remarks about her or her character. But, as the criticism grew, so did remarks about Knobel's fitness to serve, her mental status, and, perhaps most notably, her Jewish background. Prominent politicians, including Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro, also claimed that Knobel had fallen to political biases.

Icons for Knobel

One of these was a letter from Katowice (a city about 4 hours away from Poznań) written by hand on a piece of notebook paper. “After the ruling on 32 people who had effectively disrupted the Mass, I have one question ... Would Knobel, who herself comes from a 'good Jewish family', have issued the same verdict if it had happened in a synagogue?” the anonymous letter-writer asked.

“Judges who issue disgusting sentences will be touched by the finger of God. Evil always returns to the perpetrator and repays it,” the author threatened, calling the existence of such judges “flammable."

Another letter came from Kraków. Enclosed in its envelope were two small icons: one of Jesus, with the caption “Jesus I trust in you," and the second showing Jesus and the disciples at the last supper, with text about blood spilt for the forgiveness of sin.

One day you will stand before the highest court, in front of God.

The icons were attached to the court files and another letter, which read, “It’s a pity that you don’t know what Mass is. It is the greatest holiness, where Jesus himself is present ... It is a pity for your conscience, although it seems that you do not have one, but one day, you will stand before the highest court, in front of God," the letter-writer continued. “As long as we are here on earth, we still have the chance to improve ourselves."

There are also calls in the comments to visit Judge Knobel personally. “We hope that someone makes a similar fuss in her home," one wrote.

"Leftist ideology"

The verdict is not yet final, but ever since it was announced, the Polish right wing has been thundering with indignation.

Professor Stanisław Żerko, a historian from the Western Institute of Poznań, has criticized the credibility of the court, referring to it as “a court-like institution," while Łukasz Mejza, an MP from the conservative Republikańska party, argues that even Stalinist judges did not issue such sentences.

“It is impossible to understand," replied the Minister of Justice Zbigniew Ziobro said of the ruling. "Instead of judging and applying the law, the judge has applied the criteria of some extreme leftist ideology." The Justice Minister accused Joanna Knobel of disregard and flagrant violation of the law.

The Polish right has also resurfaced a trial overseen by Knobel in 2021, where she respected the request of three transgender defendants and addressed them according to their gender identity. In response, Roman Wawrzyniak from Radio Poznań called the trial a “cabaret.”

Lies dominate the landscape of Polish state media — the latest of these being the false claim that the cathedral protesters insulted worshipers at the mass and said that they were not true believers.

Protesters against anti-abortion laws in Poland.

A group of protesters against anti-abortion laws showed up at Poznan's Cathedral in Ostrow Tumski.

WTK via Youtube

A “hounded” judge

“I learned via the Internet that after the verdict was announced, hate began pouring out,” said Robert Grześ, vice-president of the court where Knobel serves. “The next day, I called the chief of the judicial police, and asked for an immediate consultation with the police and security staff, just to be safe."

As a result, the court increased security around the judge's courtroom, chambers and home. “I explained to Judge Knobel that it is not the people writing threats that are dangerous, but those who sit quietly at first, and then show up outside of your house, with bricks in hand," he said, adding that he was “most afraid of disturbed people" who could actually carry these actions out.

She feels hounded by the public.

The home addresses of Polish judges are not publicly available, but Knobel’s neighbors know her, and her security detail had expressed concern that one of her neighbors could leak her address. Police were prepared to park a police car in front of her home, to monitor the situation. But, according to other judges, Knobel did not accept the proposal of a personal security detail, trusting her neighbors and preferring to maintain a sense of privacy. Grześ said the volume of hate mail has since decreased.

Despite her outwardly comfortable attitude, Grześ admits that, in private, the judge “was very upset about this situation, and that the experience made her feel “hounded” by the public.

​Judge with a capital “J”

Joanna Knobel has been working for the Poznań court since 2008, and was first nominated by then-President Lech Kaczyński. Today, she is the head of the criminal division; this case is not the first time that Knobel has touched controversial subjects and high-profile cases.

Knobel has also not always stood on the side of protestors. In 2021, she convicted 19 year-old Wiktor Joachinkowski, accused of throwing stones at police during the Women’s Strikes that took place after the government restricted abortion rights. This verdict, which was passed on the basis of testimonies of undercover police officers, was later overturned by another court, who found the undercover reports unreliable, and acquitted Wiktor.

“Joanna did not engage herself in protests when ruling party PiS began to take over the courts once they came into power," a judge close to her told Wyborcza. “She stayed away from politics; it was politics that eventually came for her," the judge added.

When the onslaught of hate began, Knobel's co-workers, and many others, came to her defense. Judges from Poznań wrote a letter publicly condemning the campaign against Knobel, emphasizing that judicial independence is “the last element that distinguishes our country from a dictatorship." They accuse Minister Ziobro of fueling an "unparalleled campaign of hatred," and assure Knobel of their support.

The letter has been signed by 116 judges from the District Court in Poznań, 1,720 judges from the rest of the country, and 259 prosecutors. This amounts to nearly 2,100 signatures in total — an unprecedented gesture of solidarity.

Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro at a ceremony.

Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro at a ceremony to sum up the year of Prime Minister Beata Szydło's government.

Kancelaria Premiera via Wikimediacommons

Not the only one

A judge, who doled out the minimum sentence set by Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro for such aggravated robbery has also been subjected to threats and attacks on his credibility. He found Matuszak and a companion, Michał Ostrzycki, guilty of attacking and attempting to rob a young woman who had been carrying a rainbow tote bag in central Poznań.

Less than two years after the verdict was passed, Justice Minister Ziobro was indignant, and announced that it was the result of judicial bias. He released Marika Matuszak, who had been in prison for a year, while Andrej Duda considered her application for clemency.

But Justice Minister Ziobro and his followers have maintained that Matuszak’s attack was really an act of patriotism. Responding to these statements, said judge Bartłomiej Przymuśinski, who belongs to the judges’ association Iustitia , “Patriotism is not based on attacking someone for their views. Real patriots obey the law.”

Przymusiński also accused Justice Minister Ziobro of leading witch-hunts against judges whose sentences he did not agree with. “Over the past couple of years, we have seen that politicians, including Ziobro, have gained political fuel from attacking judges” in this way.

“Every day we try to fulfill the words of the oath we took as judges and our duties in the best way,” he said.

A false picture 

Dariusz Mazur, a judge from Kraków, says people should feel free to criticize judicial rulings. “Judges are only human; they are not infallible," said Mazur, who also serves as the spokesman for the judges’ association, Themis. But, he argues, that criticism should be based on the facts of the case, not rhetoric.

"This undermines public trust in the judiciary and fuels a spiral of hate against the judge."

Mazur believes that some Polish media reported false information about the cathedral protesters, including the allegations that they insulted worshipers. "This undermines public trust in the judiciary and fuels a spiral of hate against the judge," he said. Justice Minister Zbigniez Ziobro's comments and involvement in the matter were “unacceptable” and "ideology-driven," he said, adding that "This is behavior worthy of a third-class populist politician, not a high-ranking professional civil servant."

Not bowing to pressure from the public and comments from political leadership, the authorities of the Poznań court did not send Knobel to compulsory training in constitutional law following the judicial ruling.

“The law imposes an obligation on us to improve our qualifications, but everyone decides for themselves what that entails," a judge told Wyborcza.

Knobel declined to comment for this article.

The prosecutor's office has already filed an appeal of the acquittal. A first hearing is expected after summer holidays, but some judges told Wyborcza that the appeals court has a long list of cases and may take some time to deliver a verdict on the protest, so as not to "add fuel to the fire ahead of the elections."

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