Polish prosecutors open investigation into judge who fled to autocratic Belarus

FILE - Poland's Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski addresses reporters at the Foreign Ministry in Warsaw, Poland, Wednesday Feb. 14, 2024. Polish prosecutors opened an investigation Monday, May 6, after a Polish judge fled to the autocratic state of Belarus and asked for protection there. Sikorski described the judge as a traitor. (AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski, File)

By VANESSA GERA Associated Press

WARSAW, Poland (AP) — Polish prosecutors opened an investigation Monday after a Polish judge fled to the autocratic state of Belarus and asked for protection there.

The National Prosecutor’s Office said it is looking into suspicions the judge had acted on behalf of a foreign intelligence service. The Internal Security Agency began a separate probe into the scope of classified information the judge had access to.

Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski described the judge as a traitor and said the case was shocking.

According to Belarus state media, Judge Tomasz Szmydt told journalists in Minsk, the Belarusian capital, that he was forced to leave Poland, a country belonging to NATO and the European Union, due to disagreements with the current authorities.

The pro-European Union government of Prime Minister Donald Tusk took power in December vowing to restore democratic norms after eight years of rule by the right-wing Law and Justice party.

Law and Justice, in power from 2015 to 2023, carried out a series of changes to the judicial system that gave the party more power over the courts and judicial bodies, eroding the democratic separation of powers. That led to a dispute with the EU — one that the bloc only closed on Monday.

Szmydt, a judge at the provincial administrative court in Warsaw, gained notoriety in 2019 when he and his then wife engaged in an online smear campaign against judges critical of the judicial changes made by Law and Justice.

He had worked in the department of classified information and ruled on various cases related to the granting of security clearances, Justice Minster Adam Bodnar said in an evening interview on private broadcaster TVN24.

“We don’t know what information he had,” Bodnar said.

In a letter he had sent to the president of the Supreme Administrative Court in Warsaw, Szmydt announced that he was resigning his post in protest “against the unfair and harmful policy pursued by the authorities of the Republic of Poland towards the Republic of Belarus and the Russian Federation.”

The letter was posted on the X social media platform in an account under the name “Szmydt Tomasz.” The profile only began publishing messages Monday, and it was not clear if the judge controlled the profile.

In a separate post, the account accused Polish authorities, who are strongly pro-Ukraine and pro-U.S., of “leading the country to war” — a message that was then highlighted by Belarus’ state news agency, Belta.

Szmydt reportedly appealed in Minsk to Belarus’ longtime leader, Alexander Lukashenko, for protection, saying he considers Belarus a “country with great potential” led by a “very wise leader” and a place where “you can live peacefully.”

The episode comes as Western leaders express fears of hacking and other forms of hybrid warfare from Russia.

Germany, Poland and the Czech Republic said they have been targeted in hacking attacks. Germany said Monday it recalled its ambassador to Russia for a week of consultations in Berlin, and the Czech Foreign Ministry summoned Russia’s ambassador over the attacks.

After the news of Szmydt’s flight broke, Sikorski, the foreign minister, said: “We’ve had a traitor before, it seems to be a similar case.”

In 2021, a Polish soldier, Emil Czeczko, fled to Belarus seeking asylum. The following year, Belarusian authorities announced that he had been found dead after he apparently hanged himself in his home in Minsk.