Deporting Muslim Immigrants Won’t Make Poland Safer

The right-wing government in Warsaw has weaponized a 2016 anti-terrorism law to ruthlessly pursue suspected foreign terrorists while ignoring homegrown threats.

An anti-immigration protest in Poland
Several dozen members of the National Radical Camp demonstrate against immigration in Warsaw, Poland, on Nov. 24, 2018. Jaap Arriens/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Before Abdusalom left for a meeting with Poland’s Internal Security Agency (ISA) on May 7, he kissed his wife goodbye. It was not his first encounter with agents from the domestic counterintelligence agency, who had called and questioned him previously. Since Maksym S., a Ukrainian convert to Islam, was arrested in December 2019 on suspicion of planning a terrorist attack on a shopping mall in the eastern city of Pulawy, the agency was pursuing other Muslims who may have been in contact with the man.

Abdusalom, who is originally from Tajikistan and asked to be referred to only by his first name to protect his privacy, met the agents in a car parked on a Warsaw street. At first they were friendly, he said. But then they began asking questions about his contacts with Maksym S. and other Islamists operating in Poland. (Surnames of suspects like Maksym are not made public in Polish legal proceedings.) Although Abdusalom said repeatedly that he had seen Maksym S. at the mosque only once, the agents handcuffed him and drove to an unknown location in the capital.

In a quick trial that took place over video link due to the coronavirus pandemic, the state charged Abdusalom with unspecified crimes—falling under a wide definition of “terrorism” and “espionage.” According to Polish law, terrorism and espionage cases are a state secret, leaving even the defendant in the dark about the specific charges. If the authorities choose to pursue deportation in cases related to national security, neither the suspects nor their lawyers can access the classified case files. The judge approved Abdusalom’s transfer to a detention center, where he would await deportation to Tajikistan.

Under Poland’s controversial 2016 anti-terrorism law, the authorities can expel any foreigner suspected of involvement in terrorism or espionage with immediate effect. The law has granted the ISA increased powers in monitoring foreigners, including European Union citizens, based only on suspicion. In their fight against terrorism, the Polish authorities have focused especially on Muslim immigrants, leaving those like Abdusalom with little ability to defend themselves.

In addition to raising concerns about widespread rights violations, the strategy is misplaced: Poland has so far not seen a single terrorist attack inspired by Islamist ideology. Nonetheless, Poland’s government—led by the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party—has increasingly used the anti-terrorism law to target Muslims based on questionable evidence. PiS, which has normalized hate speech and created a hostile environment for immigrants in Poland, has granted the ISA a free hand to pursue foreign terrorists, regardless of human rights concerns. But the policy doesn’t make Poland any safer, and it only worsens its human rights record.

On the day of Abdusalom’s arrest, his wife, Bibirukaya—who also requested that only her first name be used—received unexpected guests: ISA officers in plain clothes who asked for Abdusalom’s passport. Bibirukaya, at the time six months pregnant, was unaware of her husband’s whereabouts and told the men to wait outside while she looked. They instead forced their way into the apartment, accusing her of hiding the passport, and took it themselves. But the agents did not confiscate Abdusalom’s laptop or other equipment that could provide evidence of wrongdoing.

Abdusalom’s deportation order came along with orders for three other Tajiks charged with similar unspecified crimes. They were moved from their homes in Warsaw to a high-security detention center in the eastern city of Przemysl to await deportation. The European Court of Human Rights ruled in September that Abdusalom and one of the other men should not be expelled because they may face inhumane treatment in Tajikistan, which is known to jail and torture opposition members. (The other two were deported on Sept. 2.) But the case is far from resolved: It is unclear how long they will remain under arrest and whether they will see their families again.

“The moment the administrative court gives a deportation order, it is effective immediately.”

The number of foreigners under deportation orders for charges of terrorism and espionage is on the rise, raising concern among Polish human rights lawyers. “The moment the administrative court gives a deportation order, it is effective immediately,” said Malgorzata Jazwinska, a lawyer with the Association for Legal Intervention, a human rights nongovernmental organization in Warsaw. “It is a dangerous situation, especially in the case of foreigners who claim that after being deported for security reasons, they can be detained, arrested, and possibly tortured.”

In many cases, the ISA has pressured Muslim immigrants to report on the activities of their peers. If they do not cooperate, the agents threaten them with deportation—as in the case of Abdusalom, when the ISA agents sought information on Maksym S. According to Daniel Bockowski, a security expert at the University of Bialystok, the security services failed to capture those allegedly responsible for Maksym S.’s radicalization, who fled Poland after his 2019 arrest.

The ISA’s counterterrorism work has previously led to wrongful convictions. In 2015, Alvi Y., a Chechen national, was charged with supporting the Islamic State. He spent two years in prison after a conviction largely based on a faulty translation of an intercepted conversation. Alvi Y. appealed the decision and managed to clear his name in 2018. Those who receive administrative deportation orders based on material gathered by the ISA, however, do not have that option.

The case of Abdusalom shows how the ISA’s counterterrorism efforts appear to be misguided, at the very least. The Polish security services have focused on Muslim immigrants beyond Europe, rather than nearby threats. “If there is ever a real threat of Islamist terrorism in Poland, the perpetrators will be most likely local, deeply radicalized converts coming from Germany or other Northern and Western European countries, where organizations that could really trigger radicalization operate,” Bockowski said.

Furthermore, Poland has long ignored domestic terrorist groups and radicalized Poles capable of so-called lone wolf attacks. Though authorities have emphasized the threat from external organizations such as the Islamic State, in recent years Poland has seen a number of homegrown terrorist attacks or plans, including the murder of Gdansk Mayor Pawel Adamowicz in 2019, a knife attack in a shopping mall in Stalowa Wola, and an unsuccessful bombing attempt on a Wroclaw bus in 2016.

The complete secrecy around cases related to national security means that it is impossible to know whether those under deportation orders have indeed committed a crime. But it is clear that Poland lacks a coherent anti-terrorism strategy, with PiS’s political agenda informing the work of the ISA. The current strategy is not only discriminatory, but it has also proved unsuccessful in identifying actual national security threats—and it could be counterproductive in the long run, leading to grievances among Poland’s Muslim community.

Poland needs a new anti-terrorism strategy that correctly identifies the threats and escapes politicization. Otherwise, it will be neither a welcoming place nor a safe one.

Agnieszka Pikulicka-Wilczewska is a freelance journalist focused on human rights and conflict in the post-Soviet space. Twitter: @Aga_Pik

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