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Spy scandal: Why did a Polish judge 'defect' to Belarus?

May 11, 2024

Polish prosecutors will likely file espionage charges against a Polish judge who fled to Belarus, where he is now seeking asylum.

Polish judge Tomasz Szmydt at a press conference with the Belarusian state news agency BelTA
Polish judge Tomasz Szmydt at a press conference with the Belarusian state news agency BelTA on May 6Image: Maxim Guchek/BelTA/Handout/REUTERS

Thousands of Belarusians have escaped to Poland in recent years to avoid political persecution by President Alexander Lukashenko's regime, which is loyal to Moscow. But Polish judge Tomasz Szmydt went the opposite way.

He has asked Lukashenko for "care and protection," he told Belarusian state news agency BelTA at a press conference last week.

Szmydt said he had resigned from the judgeship in protest at unjust Polish policies towards Belarus and Russia. He accused Warsaw of trying to start conflict under the influence of the US and the UK and claimed that he had been persecuted and intimidated because of his views, and the only way out for him was to flee the country.

Belarusian President Alexander Lukaschenko
Belarusian President Alexander Lukaschenko has offered the Polish judge police protection Image: Sergei Shelega/POOL BelTA/AP/dpa/picture-alliance

Meanwhile, the Polish public prosecutor's office has accused Szmydt of involvement in a disinformation war against Poland. On Thursday, the country's Supreme Court suspended his duties and lifted his immunity as a judge. Daily newspaper Rzeczpospolita reported he would soon be a wanted man and under investigation for espionage, among other things. Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski called Szmydt a "traitor."

The case highlights how Poland has become a target for Russian spying and has left local politicians arguing over who is to blame for a judiciary that could be infiltrated by foreign intelligence.

Access to sensitive security issues

Szmydt had been a judge at the Warsaw District Administrative Court since 2011, where he dealt with sensitive security issues, including appeal proceedings involving civil servants who were denied access to classified information. He was also head of the legal department of the National Council of the Judiciary — a body controlled by the national-conservative government under the Law and Justice (PiS) party, which was supposed to manage and discipline judges. The PiSlost to a pro-EU coalition government last year and is currently in opposition.

In 2019, Szmydt made headlines when he was identified as being a member of a group of judges waging a smear campaign on social media against other judges, who opposed the politicization of the judiciary. Szmydt later admitted his involvement in the case and apologized to the victims.

'Irreparable' damage

Szmydt's defection has further inflamed the political conflict between the center-left government and the populist, national-conservative camp. One month ahead of European elections, in which the two political blocs are running neck-and-neck, Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk and opposition leader Jarosław Kaczynski (PiS) are blaming each other for the scandal.

Former head of Polish counterintelligence, Grzegorz Malecki, told Polish news agency PAP that the damage done to Poland's security was "irreparable." It is quite possible that Szmydt had been working with foreign intelligence services for a long time, he added.

Belarusian head of state Alexander Lukashenko and Russian President together in 2023
Belarusian head of state Alexander Lukashenko and Russian President Vladimir Putin are allies Image: Alexander Demianchuk/TASS/dpa/picture alliance

Belarusian President Lukashenko himself has now also commented on the case, telling state news agency BelTA that he would consider Szmydt's asylum request, and that he had asked police to do everything possible so that "these scoundrels from Poland do not kill this man."

Lukashenko went on to say that he had already discussed the case with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin.

This article was originally written in German.

A gray-haired man (Jacek Lepiarz) stands in front of bookcases full of books
Jacek Lepiarz Journalist for DW's Polish Service who specializes in German-Polish subjects