European court faults Poland over exhumations of 2010 crash victims

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Strasbourg (France) (AFP)

The European Court of Human Rights ruled against Poland on Thursday for exhuming the bodies of victims of a 2010 plane crash which killed the country's president, saying it violated their families' right to privacy.

Polish officials began the controversial exhumations in 2016 as part of their bid to prove that the crash in Smolensk, western Russia, was not an accident but the result of foul play.

The crash, which claimed the lives of president Lech Kaczynski and 95 others, mostly senior Polish statesmen, was attributed by Polish and Russian investigators to human error and bad weather.

That conclusion has been fiercely contested by Kaczynski's twin brother Jaroslaw Kaczynski, who dominates Polish politics as head of the governing rightwing Law and Justice party.

He has long claimed there was a cover-up by Russian officials, alleging the "high probability" of an explosion and that Russian air controllers deliberately misdirected the plane at landing.

The Polish delegation was on its way to a ceremony in Russia's Katyn forest, where thousands of Polish army officers were killed by Soviet secret police in 1940 -- a massacre the Kremlin denied until 1990.

Prosecutors ordered the exhumations to test for traces of explosives or combustion.

Opinion polls at the time found that just 10 percent of Poles were in favour of digging up the bodies.

Ewa Maria Solska and Malgorzata Ewa Rybicka, the widows of two of the victims, filed their case with the rights court after unsuccessfully contesting the exhumations, saying they were carried out last May without their consent.

The court ruled that since Polish law did not provide any way for the women to appeal the decision, they had been deprived of a minimum degree of protection concerning their rights to privacy and family life.

"The applicants objected to the exhumations, writing letters to the prosecutor general, lodging interlocutory appeals and seeking an injunction in the civil courts, all to no avail," the court said.

It ordered the government to pay each woman 16,000 euros ($18,700) in damages.

Poland's Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro denied that the ruling was an indictment of the actions of the Polish authorities.

"We can see this ruling as a fiasco of the prosecution when the Civic Platform liberals (a Polish party previously led by current EU Council President Donald Tusk) were in power," he told reporters, accusing it of "not doing its job".

He repeated the government's contention that the exhumations were necessary because no autopsies were carried out on the victims' bodies when they brought back to Poland.