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Polish writer on trial for insulting President Duda

Magdalena Gwozdz-Pallokat
March 25, 2021

A Polish writer described President Andrzej Duda as a "moron." Now he faces up to three years in jail. But the governing party is pointing out that it didn't write the lese-majeste law.

Polish President Andrzej Duda
President Duda has said little about the trial of the journalist who called him a nameImage: Filip Radwanski/SOPA Images/picture-alliance

President Andrzej Duda has been called many things: a "puppet," a "ballpoint pen" for signing all the bills put before him by Poland's governing Law and Justice (PiS) party, a "liar," a "coward" and a "hypocrite.". He has been booed countless times. His speeches have been interrupted by such catcalls as "You'll end up in chains!"

Sometimes Duda does not even react and just continues talking. Sometimes he responds. For example, after someone brought up the chains again during a memorial service in Bydgoszcz a few days ago, he responded on Twitter. He wrote that the only place that he'd be chained to was his desk, "in accordance with the will of the majority, more than 10 million quiet people. And the few people who disrupted the commemorations and our national anthem: They can shout as much as they like. Freedom and democracy exist here. This is permitted." 

Yet, when it comes to one particular word that has made the headlines in Poland at the moment, Duda is remaining tight-lipped. The word was published in a Facebook post penned by the novelist and journalist Jakub Zulczyk about the president. Zulczyk is now facing trial for lese-majeste.

The Polish writer Jakub Zulczyk
Zulczyk's brush with the law began when he criticized Duda's response to the US electionImage: Eastnews/imago images

Insult to Duda 

"Andrzej Duda is a moron," Zulczyk wrote on Facebook in November. The post is still up. Zulczyk was referring to Duda's reaction to the outcome of the presidential elections in the United States. Duda congratulated Joe Biden on Twitter for "a successful presidential campaign" against Donald Trump. Duda wrote that he wanted to maintain good relations between the countries as they awaited Biden's formal nomination by the Electoral College. It was a comparatively reserved response at a time when many other heads of states and government had already warmly congratulated Biden on his victory. 

Zulczyk wrote that Biden had already won and appended the remark that has now landed him in court. Article 135 of the Polish criminal code states that people can face up to three years in prison for insulting a head of state. 

The journalist refuses to comment on the trial. But the prosecutor said Zulczyk had denied any wrongdoing and argued that his post should be interpreted as a critical evaluation of Duda's actions. 

Tomasz Besta, a psychologist in Gdansk, told DW that the law is "outdated" and he believes that remarks of this kind should not be deemed criminal unless they incite violence. It would be different, Besta added, "if someone said that all Catholics were morons." Besta said insults had a function: "It can bring us relief and let us let off steam and avoid taking more radical action. We know from research that swearing in public rarely leads to violence." 

The lawyer Jacek Dubois told the center-left Gazeta Wyborcza that Zulczyk's words were inspired by a civic-minded, or even patriotic, attitude and could be interpreted as a cry of desperation about the destruction of Poland's international relations. 

'Protected by law'

Vice Justice Minister Sebastian Kaleta had a simple takethe opposite take. "No public person should insult the head of state," he told a news website. "The office is protected by law, and it has been for years — not just since the Law and Justice Party have been in power. 

Prosecutors have sought to protect heads of state from insults before Duda's time in office. However, many of those cases were ultimately dropped.

In 2012, Andrzej Duda — then a lawmaker for PiS — criticized a jail sentence handed out to a blogger critical of President Bronisław Komorowski. The blogger had created a computer game in which Komorowski's figure was used as a shooting target. Duda criticized the ruling on the basis that former President Lech Walęsa had not been prosecuted despite when he called a successor, Lech Kaczynski, an "idiot." An appeals court later overturned the judgment against the Komorowski critic, ruling that people in public office would have to live with being the object of biting satire. 

Duda denies having any influence over Zulczyk's case — just as Komorowski's office did in the blogger's case. Neither President Duda nor the presidential office were parties in the suit, according to his spokesman, and nor had the president set any kind of action in motion. 

Another lese-majeste trial

On Tuesday, another trial began, this one involving three school students in the western Polish town of Kalisz who were captured on camera shouting vulgarities about the president and tearing up an election poster.  In court, the students denied having committed a crime, but apologized for their behavior. In February, on the other hand, a court in Zielona Gora awarded compensation to a 20-year-old woman after she was — according to the defense — wrongly arrested at a Duda campaign rally. Up to now, she has not been prosecuted for insulting the head of state. 

Zulczyk wrote on his Facebook page that he is probably "the first writer in this country for a very long time who is being prosecuted for what he has written." On social media the hashtag "#Dudajestdebilem" (Duda is a moron) has created a furor. 

In what Zulczyk declared as his final post on the subject, he again criticizes the president. The writer points to a remark that Duda made while running for reelection in June. Duda, who was standing for a second term, said LGBTQ+ communities in Poland "try to persuade us that they are humans, but it is an ideology." In his post,  Zulczyk draws attention to the potential consequences of these words for LGBTQ+ people in Poland and wrote: "Up to now no prosecutors have filed charges against President Duda. I rest my case." 

This article has been translated from German.