The anti-racist activist fled New Years Eve in 2018 with his wife and child, seeking refuge in Norway, which has long hosted political refugees from desperate corners of the world.

But activist Rafal Gawel was not fleeing a war-torn country. He was fleeing Poland, a member of the democratic and peaceful European Union. Although her initial claim for asylum in Norway was rejected, last month an appeals board upheld her request.

It was a chain of dramatic events that underscored concerns elsewhere in Europe that Polish democracy – once seen as a great achievement of the post-Soviet era – has regressed under the right-wing coalition that has ruled the country for five years. .

Although Mr Gawel’s case is complicated, the asylum decision reflected concerns about political influence in the Polish justice system. The Norwegian immigration service said it granted him asylum on the grounds that he faced political persecution in Poland, a rare example of a country in Europe offering such protection to a citizen of the European Union. Norway is not a member of the bloc, but maintains close relations with it.

Controversial and well-known artist and human rights activist in Poland, Mr. Gawel, 47, is a complex figure at the center of an international struggle for democratic rights. He got into legal trouble in Poland, fleeing the country just before being sentenced to two years in prison for fraud and embezzlement.

He says, without providing any evidence, that the charges against him were an effort by the Polish government to contain him and that the trial was rigged.

The Polish government noted that fraud charges were brought against him under a previous more centrist administration in 2013. And a non-profit group in Poland funded by financier George Soros accused Mr. Gawel of mismanaging the funds that ‘he allocated to his organization, the Center for Monitoring Racist and Xenophobic Behavior. These charges were used in the trial against him.

Mr Gawel said the Polish government had targeted him for his work documenting a growing number of hate crimes in the country and ordered far-right activists to physically harm him. “The decision to grant me asylum saved my life,” he said in an interview.

The Norwegian Appeals Board which examined and approved Mr Gawel’s asylum claim concluded that the purpose of the trial was to restrict his activities and that he might be in danger if he returned to Poland.

He concluded that Mr. Gawel risked “political persecution by government officials, under the guise and appearance of a criminal case where the aim was to limit his freedom of speech and activity by” imprisoning, and perhaps also discrediting him ”. The conclusion, which was not made public by Norway, was read to the New York Times by Lukasz Niedzielski, Mr Gawel’s lawyer.

Gunnar Ekelove-Slydal, acting secretary general of the Oslo-based Norwegian Helsinki Committee, a human rights organization, said Norway’s move was a clear sign of growing concerns in Europe over the setback democratic in Poland.

“Confidence in Polish justice between European states is collapsing,” he said.

But Polish Deputy Foreign Minister Pawel Jablonski said in an interview that Mr Gawel’s conviction was based on criminal charges. “He was sentenced by two courts,” the minister said. “We suspect that they may have been manipulated by his words,” he added, referring to the Norwegian immigration services.

In recent years, Poland has been at odds with its European partners, fearing that its democracy could be undermined by the right-wing coalition led by the Law and Justice Party which seized power in 2015. The government has actively worked to limit the freedom of expression and LGBTQ rights – and also weakened the independence of the judiciary, by assuming more important controls on the prosecution and judges.

“The ruling government of law and justice has used the past five years to bring the judiciary under its control, raising serious concerns about the independence of courts, judges and prosecutors,” said Lydia Gall, senior researcher on Eastern Europe at Human Rights Watch.

The European Union has imposed modest sanctions on Poland, and several members of the bloc also took individual action in response. This year, Germany and the Netherlands refused to extradite Polish citizens on European arrest warrant to Poland, fearing they would not get a fair trial.

Human rights experts said Mr Gawel’s case was significant given the scarcity of asylum for European citizens in other European countries. Of the tens of thousands of people who have been granted asylum by Norway over the past decade, only 18 were EU citizens, according to the country. immigration statistics. A Pole was granted asylum last year, according to official statistics, but human rights experts said they were not aware of the case. Norway generally does not provide details on specific asylum cases.

Jakub Godzimirski, an expert on Polish-Norwegian relations at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs, said some Poles applied for asylum after the end of communist rule in Poland in the early 1990s, but most were refused .

“The threshold for obtaining asylum from a European Union country in Norway is quite high,” he said.

During the interview, Mr Gawel said he left Poland by car after his passport was confiscated and consular staff from a European country he refused to identify had helped him, him and his family to return to Norway.

Mr Gawel said he and his wife, Karolina Krupa, got married a few days before fleeing. “We got the marriage certificate in the morning just before leaving, and then had our car checked by wiretapping and GPS experts,” he said. “We felt like refugees and we were refugees.”

Norway initially rejected his asylum claim, but he appealed the decision and was granted refugee status on September 30.

During the interview, Mr Gawel denied any wrongdoing and said he had presented the Norwegian immigration authorities with documents proving his innocence.

“I have been targeted because my organization has exposed the links between local authorities, government figures and far-right groups,” he said, adding that his group had filed more than 400 complaints. for hate crimes committed in Poland this year.

Mr Gawel also disagreed with a non-profit group operating in Poland. Ewa Kulik-Bielinska, head of the Stefan Batory Foundation, an independent foundation set up by Mr Soros, said Mr Gawel had abused the equivalent of $ 20,000 in grants she gave him.

Mr. Gawel attributed the incident to a difference with the foundation on correct money handling procedures.

The judge who sentenced him in 2019 said in his ruling that Mr Gawel used loans and donations for his own purposes. “Having public money requires transparency and honesty,” said judge Alina Kaminska, according to Polish reports.

Mr Gawel refused to show the documents granting him asylum at the Times’ request. The Norwegian Immigration Appeals Board confirmed he was granted asylum, but declined to comment on details.

Mr Niedzielski, his lawyer, said he hoped Norway’s decision “would be a game-changer” in the way European countries treat Poland, although experts said it was unlikely pushes the Polish government to change course.

But, said Mr Ekelove-Slydal, of the Norwegian Helsinki Committee, “if such decisions are followed by concrete consequences, on economic cooperation or investments, it could trigger new reflections on the courts in Poland.”

“Confidence in the Polish justice system has been undermined,” he said, “which means that a fundamental pillar of European cooperation is threatened.”

Elian Peltier reported from London, Monika Pronczuk from Brussels and Henrik Pryser Libell from Oslo, Norway. Anatol Magdziarz contributed reporting from Warsaw.

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