Following the gruesome death of an eight-year-old child at the hands of his stepfather, Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki reopened the topic of reinstating the death penalty, with over half of Poles supporting the idea despite the legal impossibility of implementing it.
Earlier this month, eight-year-old Kamil died in a children’s hospital in Upper Silesia, Western Poland, after being in a coma for 35 days after being forced to stand atop a gas stove and pouring boiling water on his body by his stepfather. An investigation revealed that the 27-year-old man had been torturing the child for a long time.
“The penalties for the worst degenerates are much too low,” Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki tweeted on 10 May. “Personally, I am in favour of reinstating the death penalty for the most brutal criminals!” he said, commenting on Kamil’s case.
He added that penalties should be much higher for “monsters,” who not only destroy children’s lives but do that with premeditation. Consequently, he asked Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro to put forward amendments to the Polish Criminal Code.
The court practice shows that offenders too often receive low sentences, which the government cannot agree to, said Family and Social Policy Minister Marlena Maląg.
Reinstating capital punishment gained popularity in the government
It was not the first time that Morawiecki spoke in favour of reinstating capital punishment. In January, he said that the death penalty should be permissible for the most severe crimes.
Polish ruling conservative Law and Justice (PiS) party traditionally sympathises with the Catholic Church, which, after the revision of its Catechism in 2018, teaches that in the light of the Gospel death penalty “is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person” and in no circumstances can be permitted.
Even if he considers himself Catholic, Morawiecki admitted that he disagreed with the Church on this point. To his mind, capital punishment should be “thought over” in Poland, contrary to the contemporary world that wants to eliminate it too fast.
The government’s spokesman, Piotr Müller, later explained that the prime minister only expressed his own opinion and reinstating the death penalty is not a part of PiS’ political agenda nor a matter of discussion in the government.
Still, Morawiecki has followers on that issue even in his government, especially among the members of Sovereign Poland, PiS’ Eurosceptic junior coalition partner, the leader of which is the Minister of Justice Zbigniew Tadeusz Ziobro.
Shortly after Morawiecki’s January statement, Deputy Justice Minister Marcin Warchoł said he also supports reintroducing the death penalty into the Criminal Code, which he believes would reduce the number of crimes.
The prime minister faced criticism for his controversial views from top Polish lawyers. Morawiecki’s approval of the death penalty is another step to withdraw Poland from the European Union, said Professor Andrzej Zoll, criminal law expert, as quoted by Rzeczpospolita news outlet.
Most Poles want capital punishment back
However, the latest poll by United Surveys for Wirtualna Polska showed that over half of Poles, although a narrow majority, agree with Morawiecki about the need to bring back the death penalty.
In the survey, the results of which were published on Wednesday (17 May), 48.3% of respondents said they support the prime minister’s position, and one-third of them strongly believe capital punishment should be reinstated.
46.3% of the survey’s participants spoke against the death penalty, with 35% strongly convinced that it should not be restored. 5.4% did not have a clear opinion.
The support for the death penalty proved to align with political views. Among the supporters of the ruling coalition, 76% agree with Morawiecki’s views. Among the opposition’s supporters, 65% do not want the death penalty reinstated.
The most divided were the voters with no established political sympathy. 48% support the death penalty, while 38% oppose it.
Death penalty prohibited in EU
The last death sentence was performed in Poland was in 1988 at a jail in Kracow. Despite asking for a pardon, 29-year-old Stanisław Czubański was executed for the brutal rape and murder of a woman.
Under Communist rule, which ended in Poland in 1989, one could be sentenced to death for high treason, acts of terror, particularly brutal murders and serious economic crimes. In 1989, the parliament adopted an amnesty act, under which anyone sentenced to death who has not been executed yet, had their sentence replaced with 25 years in jail.
Both Morawiecki and Müller insisted that reinstatement of capital punishment is impossible in Poland due to the country’s obligations as a member of international organisations: the European Union and the Council of Europe.
The European Charter of Human Rights, which came to force in 1953 and which Poland signed in 1993, states in Article 2 that “no one shall be condemned to the death penalty or executed.”
In 2000, the Council of Europe declared itself a zone without the death penalty. Currently, no member state maintains this type of penalty in its criminal code.
Last year, in a joint statement on the occasion of the European and World Day against the Death Penalty, EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Josep Borrell and Secretary General of the Council of Europe, Marija Pejčinović Burić, called the death penalty “cruel, inhuman and ineffective punishment.”
European governments speak against
Unlike in Poland, in most EU countries, the reinstatement of capital punishment is a rare subject of public debate, and the governing parties do not bring it up.
This is the case in France, where only Eric Zemmour, far-right presidential candidate for the 2022 elections, said he did not think it was right to abolish capital punishment. Still, in his presidential programme, he did not include a proposal to restore it.
Also, in Portugal, the first modern sovereign state in Europe to abolish the death penalty, the issue is off the political agenda. Even the far-right party Chega, who in 2020 decided to put the issue to an internal referendum, saw it rejected by its members.
In Belgium, the death penalty was abolished officially in 1996, and its prohibition has been enshrined in the Constitution. In 2016, the parliament refused to discuss a bill proposed by the far-right Flemish party Vlaams Belang (Identity and Democracy).
The party considered the penal system “too lax” and proposed to rehabilitate life imprisonment without the possibility of early release, which would not lead to executions, but leave the option to “banish permanently” some individuals, including terrorists and child abusers, from society.
Still, in 2020, the party abstained on the vote on removing the last reference to the death penalty in Belgian law.
In Finland, where the last execution took place in 1944, even it was abolished only in 1972, in 2011, Helsingin Sanomat carried out a survey where as much as 19% of respondents supported capital punishment, 48% were against, and 29% said that it could be used in certain exceptional cases. Most support came from the then-rising Finns Party.
In the Netherlands, where the death penalty was scrapped from the constitution in 1870, the SGP, an opposition conservative Calvinist party, openly advocated for capital punishment until 2017, when it omitted the measure from its election programme for the first time in 100 years. Nonetheless, party members continued advocating for capital punishment as recently as February 2023 during a debate in the Dutch Senate.
A survey from 2008 showed that 59% of Dutch citizens rejected the implementation of the death penalty under any circumstances, 26% deemed it justifiable in “special cases”, and 13% for “extreme criminal acts”.
In Germany, the country’s centre-left government has made it clear that pushing for abolition in other countries is an important mission.
The abolition of capital punishment in Germany has been enshrined in the Basic Law of the Federal Republic since 1949, a provision that legitimised the death penalty in severe cases remaining in the constitution of the land Hesse until it was officially abolished via a referendum. Bavaria abolished a similar clause in 1998.
Also, most Italian politicians, as does the Catholic Church, oppose capital punishment. Even Matteo Salvini, the controversial leader of the right-wing Lega party, spoke against the death penalty in 2015, opting for life imprisonment and forced labour for terrorists instead.
Until 2019, 142 countries abolished the death penalty in law or in practice. In 2021, a minority of 18 states, 9% of the total number of UN Member States, still carried out executions, according to the Council of Europe.
[Davide Basso, Maria de Deus Rodrigues, Anne-Sophie Gayet, Pekka Vänttinen, Benedikt Stöckl, Krasen Nikolov, Nick Alipour and Federica Pascale contributed reporting]
(Aleksandra Krzysztoszek | EURACTIV.pl)
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