World

Witnesses face panel in Poland property restitution probe

A Polish commission investigating alleged irregularities in the restitution of property seized by the state during World War II tried Monday to determine the role of Warsaw's mayor in the process as it questioned its first witnesses.

The government commission is looking into cases in which seized property was handed over in recent years to private individuals unrelated to the original owners, allegedly after the rightful owners were omitted or tricked out of their rights.

As it seeks to redress possible wrongs, the ruling conservative Law and Justice party is also using the situation to condemn its political foes, the previous liberal government under which the improper transfers allegedly were made. It was led by Donald Tusk, who is now head of the European Council.

The panel questioned two former town hall employees who were fired last year amid the restitution scandal.

One of them, Krzysztof Sledziewski, told the commission he believed Warsaw Mayor Hanna Gronkiewicz-Waltz had a say in at least one restitution decision. Gronkiewicz-Waltz immediately denied the allegation on Twitter.

She also refuses to appear before the panel, which is led by Deputy Justice Minister Patryk Jaki, and has asked a court to rule on its legality.

Restitution was made possible in 1990, following Poland's transition to democracy.

The commission was formed in reaction to public outrage over some of the wrongly returned property. The highly valuable plots and buildings were seized from Polish, Jewish and other owners in Warsaw and some other cities through a 1945 communist decree.

Some other city officials, lawyers and businessmen have been put under arrest as part of a separate criminal investigation on suspicion of helping in and profiting from the irregular restitutions and will be brought before the panel, which has authority to send cases to court to be reversed or press for compensation.

Also Monday, some European Parliament lawmakers appealed on European Union members to speed up efforts to return seized property to Holocaust survivors, some of who are living their final years in poverty.