BRUSSELS – A prominent Polish opposition leader, Gdansk Mayor Pawel Adamowicz, died on Monday after being stabbed in the chest a day before in a charity concert, upsetting Polish politics at a tense and polarized moment in the history of nation.
The attack, which has been widely condemned across the political spectrum, has amazed a country that has become deeply divided over the ruling party's attempts at law and justice to increase control over courts, media and other aspects of public life .
The Polish authorities said the alleged assailant was a 27-year-old man with a history of crime and mental illness. After stabbing Adamowicz repeatedly on a stage in front of a crowd of thousands of people, he claimed to have been unjustly imprisoned by the former ruling party of Poland, which had supported Adamowicz.
The mayor of a Polish city famed for its independent workers who played a key role in the fall of communism, Adamowicz was known for his views on migration, support for gay rights and efforts to combat the party's attempts at government Polish to support its power over the judiciary of the country. Those issues crossed the border in a country increasingly dominated by law and justice, even if national leaders quickly moved to support the mayor and his family.
"The hostility and violence produced the most tragic and painful result," wrote Polish President Andrej Duda on Twitter, one day after writing that "we usually do not agree with Mayor Pawel Adamowicz in political opinions on how Poland should be governed, but today we are with him and his family unconditionally. "
The Polish government sent a plane to London to take home Adamowicz's wife, who was in Britain at the time of the attack.
The Polish authorities, who identified the suspect only as Slawomir W., said they had recently been released from prison after serving more than five years for committing a series of bank robberies. They said he had used a press pass to get on the stage and were investigating how he had gotten.
It was not clear if the attack was politically motivated. But Adamowicz's allies have said that it is difficult to separate crime from a broader context of anger, incitement to hatred and recalls to the violence that has been increasing in Poland in the three years since Law and Justice took office. Some said they feared that the country could become even more divided after the murder.
Last year, the extreme organization of Polish youth issued fake death certificates for 11 opposition politicians, including Adamowicz, before the October local elections. Human rights defenders have asked prosecutors to file a complaint, but authorities have said that death certificates included legitimate political discourse.
"In the coming days we will have to do everything possible to save our humanity and to save what is good in our society," said Polish human rights commissioner Adam Bodnar on Monday.
Bodnar, who has worked with the mayor on several issues during the twenty-year tenure of Adamowicz at the head of Gdansk, said he was trying to be careful not to point fingers before the motivation behind the crime is known. But he said it's hard not to think about the broader context.
"I'm trying to be very responsible for what I'm talking about," he said. "If we talk about general trends, then yes, the government and in particular the prosecutors office was not doing enough to fight the incitement of hate, when I will see this death certificate with the face that it was done by right-wing non-governmental organizations, what should I think? "
Even before Adamowicz was declared dead on Monday afternoon, Polish civic groups had planned to hold protests against incitement to hate Monday in Warsaw, Gdansk and other parts of the country, and turned into impromptu memorials for the mayor killed. Duda, the Polish president, announced Monday that he will hold an anti-violence demonstration on Tuesday.
But some people have wondered if the government had done too little to combat the demands for violence.
"One could easily imagine that a person who would have done the same would have been much more motivated by the context in which it happened," said Piotr Buras, the head of the Warsaw office of the European Council for Foreign Relations, a group of experts. "This is, for me, the bottom line, and that's why it's a warning to me that if you tolerate this level of hatred in the public debate, it can happen a lot."