Scion of Polish nobility jailed in property restitution case

International

A general view of the palace of the Sobanski family in Guzow, near Warsaw, undergoing extensive renovation after decades of World War II and communist-era damage, in Guzow, Poland, on Thursday, Oct. 28, 2021. A Warsaw court on Tuesday, Nov. 16 confirmed the arrest order for a Polish businessman who is a descendent of one Poland’s aristocratic families, in a case highlighting problems still resulting from the communist era regime’s seizure of private property after World War II. Michal Sobanski, a 46-year-old businessman, has been held in isolation in a prison in the western Polish city of Wroclaw since June. (AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)

WARSAW, Poland (AP) — A Warsaw court on Tuesday confirmed the arrest order for a Polish businessman who is a descendant of one of Poland’s aristocratic families, in a case highlighting the problems still resulting from the communist regime’s seizure of private property after World War II.

Michal Sobanski, a 46-year-old businessman, has been held in isolation in a prison in the western Polish city of Wroclaw since June. The Appeals Court in Warsaw rejected his lawyers’ appeal against the temporary arrest, which means Sobanski must remain jailed until Dec. 20, while the investigation continues. The prosecutors argued that only isolation can guarantee there will be no influencing of witnesses.

Prosecutors in Wroclaw say they have charged Sobanski with committing crimes relating to property valued at 44 million zlotys ($11 million) while he acted as an “intermediary” for his clients in exchange for a “commission.” The charges do not relate to any of the Sobanski family’s property, a spokeswoman for the prosecutors told The Associated Press.

Poland is the only country in Central Europe that has no legislation to regulate the return of seized property to its pre-World War II owners or their inheritors. Instead, the original owners and their inheritors have been told to make their claims through Poland’s courts.

Sobanski was helping various related and unrelated persons, also living abroad, get through Poland’s property restitution process, gather documents, sometimes 19th century ones, and reclaim their family properties seized by the communists, who nationalized the estates of aristocratic families and real estate in Warsaw, the capital.

Sobanski denies the charges, and his family and lawyers say it is an injustice to keep him in pre-trial detention for months. He remains under arrest despite having given extensive explanations and despite hefty bail and guarantees being offered by hundreds of people.

He is under constant surveillance, with lights turned on every 30 minutes at night, and has only 5 minutes daily for calls to the family. His asthma also has gotten worse, his relatives say.

Sobanski has an “enormous feeling of wrong, of injustice,” said his sister, Izabela Poninska, who admitted that “perhaps someone was indeed omitted, perhaps there could have been things stemming from pure lack of knowledge” in all the cases he handled.

But she described her brother as an “exceptionally honest person” who was “fearless in his activity” and suggested he was bearing the consequences of that.

In a related case, the descendant of another one of Poland’s aristocratic families, Adam Zamoyski, a 72-year-old Polish-British historian, had his passport taken and a freeze put on his properties while prosecutors pursue allegations of appropriating someone else’s inheritance rights, valued at 20 million zlotys ($5 million), through an allegedly forged will.

“I can’t wait to get into court and refute everything,” said Zamoyski who has been decorated with medals for his decades-long service to Poland’s culture. He spoke to AP from his home in Poland, saying he had been forced to cancel work obligations and medical appointments in London.

Both Zamoyski and Sobanski’s lawyer, Jan Mydlowski, believe it is no coincidence that they were targeted soon before Poland’s right-wing government introduced new legislation that restricts the rights of former property owners and their descendants to reclaim property seized by the former communist regime.

“This new law took effect and hundreds of clients, whom he was helping, were deprived of having a voice,” Poninska told the AP.

The law also affects some Holocaust survivors and their descendants, triggering a diplomatic row with Israel, though the majority of the prewar property seized by the communists was owned by Christian Poles.

The prosecutors insist there is no connection between Sobanski’s arrest and the new law.

All this comes at a time when Poland’s justice system is at the heart of conflict between the right-wing government and the European Union, which sees actions by the government as undermining Poland’s justice system and the rule of law.

The 11 counts of alleged crimes in Sobanski’s case carry a prison term of up to 10 years. The prosecutors allege Sobanski, and some others, have used false documents or testimony to obtain from the state the restitution of real estate across Poland, while leaving out some inheritors.

A foundation started by Sobanski promotes Polish culture and has bought back Polish art from South America to give it to state museums.

“He is a great patriot and it’s disgraceful,” Zamoyski said.

Poninska said the challenges of the restitution process and the reports of irregularities have made the word “restitution” sound “like a curse.”

The path is long and complicated, especially for those living abroad. In rare cases, irregularities allowed speculators to gain ownership of properties they had no previous links to. Poland’s recent legislation closed off the possibility of reversing administrative ownership decisions older than 30 years.

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