the Sydney professor under attack from Poland’s ruling party

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Wojciech Sadurski does not immediately seem like a danger to a foreign government. By day the internationally renowned legal scholar is Challis chair of jurisprudence at the University of Sydney. By night he posts videos on YouTube of his other passion – playing drums on jazz standards.

But the 70-year-old professor has had to pay attention to a more disturbing drumbeat since the ruling party and public broadcaster of his home country, Poland, sued him for defamation over tweets accusing them separately of indulging far-right nationalists and harassing the government’s political opponents.

On Friday Sadurski was due to be cross-examined remotely from a Warsaw courtroom, in the first hearing of one of three cases against him that have added to the alarm in international legal circles and Poland’s fellow EU members about the rightwing Law and Justice party’s increasingly brazen assault on the independence of the judiciary.

Related: In Poland we’ve become spectators at the dismantling of democracy | Karolina Wigura and Jarosław Kuisz

Legal academics from around the world have rallied in defence of Sadurski under the hashtag #withwoj, with hundreds signing an open letter calling the suits a “coordinated harassment campaign … against a well-known and respected academic who has clearly struck a nerve with his powerful critique of the situation in his native country”.

Sadurski’s case was initially sparked by controversy over the annual commemoration of Polish independence on 11 November, which has increasingly become dominated by extreme nationalists. The day before the 2018 event marking the centenary of the modern Polish state, where president Andrzej Duda awkwardly combined an official event with the march organised by the far right, Sadurski tweeted that “no honest person” should attend, and referred to Law and Justice (PiS in Polish) as “an organised criminal group” colluding with neo-Nazis.

Agata Kornhauser-Duda, Andrzej Duda standing in front of a crowd: Poland’s president, Andrzej Duda, speaks at the controversial march in Warsaw on 11 November 2018, which marked the centenary of Poland regaining its independence. Photograph: Czarek Sokołowski/AP

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Poland’s president, Andrzej Duda, speaks at the controversial march in Warsaw on 11 November 2018, which marked the centenary of Poland regaining its independence. Photograph: Czarek Sokołowski/AP

Two months later he also incurred the wrath of the country’s public broadcaster, TVP, following the assassination of the liberal mayor of Gdansk, Paweł Adamowicz. Sadurski accused governmental media on Twitter of hounding Adamowicz over his views, referring to “Goebbelsian” behaviour, but without naming TVP. Nevertheless, it took out both a civil and criminal suit for defamation, alleging his tweet amounted to a claim that it had incited the murder. Conviction in the criminal case – which will now be heard in December after Friday’s hearing was postponed – carries a maximum 12-month jail sentence and heavy financial penalties.

Sadurski, who first came to Australia in 1981 and has dual citizenship, is a regular commentator in the Polish media and well known in legal circles there. He is unapologetic about his statements, saying: “People who don’t watch Polish public TV don’t realise how aggressive and vulgar it is.

“I exercised my right of public criticism as a concerned citizen and as a lawyer.

He defends the reference to the Nazis as “almost normalised, mild invective” in Polish commentary, pointing out that TVP has used the same phrase itself.

‘I still believe in judicial independence’

The backdrop to the Sadurski cases is a concerted campaign by Law and Justice to bend the Polish legal system to its own ends. Since the party won government in 2015 it has taken control of the appointment, promotion and discipline of judges, and has used that power to intimidate and harass those who disagree with it. That has led to confrontation with the European Commission, which took Poland to the European court of justice in October 2019.

In December the party brought in legislation making it illegal for any Polish judge to question the legality of its appointments, sparking a further challenge from the commission and a warning from the president of its own supreme court that enacting the law might even put Poland’s membership of the European Union in jeopardy.

Related: ‘It feels like it’s game over’: Polish liberals despair after Duda’s win

Asked whether he sees the cases against him as an escalation of the measures inside Poland, Sadurski says: “Absolutely. Because I’m part of the legal community, I’m seen as part of that, part of the broader syndrome of attacking liberal institutions.”

At a hearing in Warsaw in November 2019 for the civil case brought by Law and Justice, Sadurski robustly defended his position on grounds of freedom of speech, invoking his knowledge as a legal academic, but also “my feelings and emotions as a citizen”.

“In my opinion, the ruling party enjoys almost unlimited powers and very broad material benefits,” he said. “There is only one thing which PiS is missing. It has no privilege to silence their critics. This lawsuit is an attempt to seize that privilege too. And if that attempt were approved, it would complete the process of silencing the critics. Paradoxically, it would confirm the correctness of my diagnosis.”

The professor is pessimistic about the future for liberal Poland, particularly since Duda narrowly won re-election in July, cementing Law and Justice’s control of both presidency and parliament for the next three years. Now, he believes, it will set about full capture of the judiciary, muzzle the still-vibrant private media and emasculate municipal government – almost all Poland’s major cities are controlled by opposition parties.

He remains much more sanguine about the outcome of his cases (“because I still believe in judicial independence in Poland”), even though he faces potentially huge financial costs if he loses. He had an unequivocal victory when the Law and Justice case was dismissed in June, but it has appealed, and further appeals are inevitable whatever the initial outcome of the TVP cases. Not all his lawyers can work pro bono.

He says he has received “enormously strong and reassuring support” from Sydney University, as well as from international colleagues. Despite the legal threats and increasingly dark political climate, he has no qualms about returning to Poland to fight the cases, Covid permitting.

“I would go and I did go. I appeared in court in person, with my lawyers. I gave my own statement … My position has always been, and whenever it is feasible, I will go.

“It’s my country, I’m not going to be upset about it because it has a horrible government.”

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