Poland reels as Gdansk mayor dies after stabbing

Poland reels as Gdansk mayor dies after stabbing
By Wojciech Kosc in Warsaw January 15, 2019

Mayor of Gdansk Pawel Adamowicz died on January 14 after he was stabbed at a charity event he had attended the night before. 

The assassination has sent shock waves across Poland with thousands taking part in vigils to mourn the killed mayor. The evidence currently points to the attack having been carried out by a former convict, reportedly with a history of mental health problems, who claimed he was put in prison and "tortured" by Civic Platform, Poland's liberal opposition party and Adamowicz's former political grouping.

It is possible, however, that Poland's polarised politics might have imprinted on the perpetrator an urge to act. The state-run television TVP frequently suggested Adamowicz was dishonest, if not corrupt.

The general public's perception that there was a political motive behind the assassination of a popular public figure is likely to stoke tension further in an already divided nation, anxiously awaiting what 2019 will bring.

Poland is facing double elections this year. Poles will elect their members of the European Parliament in May and vote on whether to keep the incumbent government of Law and Justice (PiS) in office in the national vote in autumn.

Adamowicz was onstage in Gdansk addressing the crowd that gathered to celebrate the Great Orchestra of Christmas Charity (WOSP), a nationwide fundraiser to buy hospital equipment for children’s care.

The attacker walked up to Adamowicz undisturbed and stabbed him a number of times, causing several wounds, including a serious heart wound. Adamowicz was resuscitated immediately and rushed to hospital where he underwent a five-hour emergency operation and was put on life support. His condition did not improve, however, and he died the following day.

The attacker was later identified as a Gdansk resident who had recently left prison after completing a jail term for four armed bank robberies in 2013.

After he stabbed Adamowicz, the attacker managed to seize a microphone from one of the event's staffers. 

“I was innocently jailed, Civic Platform [Adamowicz’s former party] tortured me, that’s why Adamowicz had to die,” the attacker shouted, having stood unchallenged on the stage for what witnesses described as an excruciatingly long 30 to even 60 seconds. Two security officers only showed up after a technician grounded the attacker.

Despite early appeals from political leaders not to politicise the assassination of the popular mayor, who had been in office since 1998 and won another term last year, the odds appear increasingly in favour of ever-deeper fault lines to divide Poland in an election year.

The media, politicians, and commentators leaning to either of the main sides of the political debate in Poland – so PiS or the more or less left-liberal opposition – blamed each other for fostering brutalisation of public life that culminated in the fatal attack on Adamowicz.

The attack has also prompted questions on the level of security at the event, which gathered thousands in Gdansk. The prosecution is probing if the organiser – a local NGO – and the hired security company met standards to ensure the event was safe. 

The attacker was charged with murder and may face life imprisonment, although how law enforcement will handle the case could change in the light of reports that the man had been treated psychiatrically in the past and was under medical supervision while in jail, PAP reported. The police were reportedly warned about his release from prison, which took place in late December. He did not plead guilty. 

In the aftermath of the assassination, Jerzy Owsiak, the head of the WOSP foundation, has resigned. The WOSP events have been held each January since 1993. Their main part is tens of thousands of volunteers – mostly kids – raising money in the streets to buy hospital equipment. Each fundraiser effort ends with hundreds of live events, such as the fateful one in Gdansk, countrywide.

This year's edition of the WOSP raised over PLN92mn (€21.4mn) but the count is not final yet.