The third suicide in January among the ringleaders of Poland’s most notorious case of abduction and murder has shocked Poland and led to the resignation of the Minister of Justice. Guards at the Płock prison found the body of Robert Pazik in his cell, by the unmonitored wash area, shortly after 5am on the 19th of January. A bed sheet was tied around his neck.
This was the grisly finale to a saga that began back in October 2001 when Pazik, along with his accomplices, kidnapped Krzysztof Olewnik, the son of Włodzimierz Olewnik, a wealthy meat processor from a small town near Płock. The kidnappers continued to hold Olewnik hostage for two years, all the time maintaining contact with his family. In July 2003, they demanded and were paid a ransom of ?300,000 for his release, but even after collecting the money, they refused to let him go. Olewnik’s decomposed body was found in a forest in 2006 and an investigation later revealed that the kidnappers tortured and murdered him within a month of receiving the ransom.
The kidnappers were eventually caught, brought to trial and the three ringleaders sentenced to life imprisonment in March 2008. As the trial progressed, a catalogue of errors emerged in the police handling of the case and suspicions grew that the police had colluded with the kidnappers to allow them to escape with the money. Public confidence in the police and the justice system plummeted and even though a subsequent inquiry found three police officers guilty of negligence and brought charges of misconduct against a public prosecutor, the damage was done.
Robert Pazik was one of three sentenced to life imprisonment for Olewnik’s abduction and murder and until Monday the 19th of January, he was the last one still alive; the others had committed suicide while in custody. Many Poles believe that the apparent inability of the authorities to prevent these suicides suggests that there is more to this story than simply official incompetence. Pazik’s death makes it even more unlikely that the truth will come to light as he never spoke about the events that led to Olewnik’s murder, revealed what happened to the ransom money or commented on suspicions that some of the kidnappers were police informers.
The father and sister of the murdered kidnap victim, Włodzimierz Olewnik and Danuta Olewnik-Cieplińska, are first in line to subscribe to the idea of a cover-up. They do not believe that these were suicides, but a systematic elimination of the last remaining witnesses to the truth. “There’s someone behind all this who is dealing the cards,” Olewnik-Cieplińska told TVN. She and her father do not buy into the idea that the murderers had a sudden attack of conscience: “Three bandits with no scruples, take their own lives?” said Olewnik, “I don’t believe it.” Adding further fuel to the flames of the conspiracy theorists was the revelation in early February that 230 pieces of evidence had been destroyed by a “sewage leak” in a police station in Olsztyn.
The news of Pazik’s death was followed within days by the announcement that Prime Minister Donald Tusk had accepted the resignation of Zbigniew Ćwiąkalski, the Minister of Justice. At a press conference in Warsaw Tusk said that while he highly valued the work of Ćwiąkalski, he stressed that “above all, I cannot accept omissions, sloppiness and the weakness of the services responsible for this suicide.” He added that the ultimate responsibility must be borne by the highest responsible authority, in this case, the Minister of Justice. The chief warden of the Płock prison has also been relieved of his post.
The dismissal of Ćwiąkalski highlights how the political role of the Minister of Justice needs to be strengthened. Without this, the necessary but expensive and potentially unpopular reforms to the justice system have no chance of seeing the light of day. The most important tasks facing his successor are the need to separate the government from the office of the Public Prosecutor and countering the laziness and poor quality of the work the office carries out – the very issues that ultimately caused Ćwiąkalski’s downfall.
Tusk also ordered a Commission of Inquiry to be convened into the abduction and death of Krzysztof Olewnik, saying “the case calls for explanation, not only in terms of the legal ramifications, but the public should also have access to knowledge. There should be no shadow hanging over the matter.”