Poland exhumes some 2010 plane crash victims

Polish investigators have exhumed the remains of three of the 96 Poles killed in the 2010 plane crash in Russia.

Warsaw: One autopsy report describes organs that had been removed years before. Another adds 20 centimetres (nearly 8 inches) to a short man, making no mention of bones disfigured by childhood polio. One family doubts whether an autopsy was performed at all.

Polish investigators have exhumed the remains of three of the 96 Poles killed in the 2010 plane crash in Russia that killed president Lech Kaczynski due to what they say are flaws in the initial autopsies performed by Russian officials.

Two of the 96 victims were exhumed this week in Poland, following a first such exhumation last August. More could follow, prosecutors say.

"There were discrepancies. Evidence gathered in Poland differed from information in the Russian documentation," said Colonel Zbigniew Rzepa, spokesman for the chief military prosecutor`s office. "We had to carry out the exhumations to clarify all the doubts."

Surviving relatives of the three have been enraged by the faulty autopsy reports, which have added to their private grief. News of the flawed reports has also added to suspicions held by some Poles that the Russians were, at best, sloppy in their handling of the crash aftermath, and, at worst, trying to cover something up.

At one extreme, the flawed autopsies have encouraged Polish conspiracy theories claiming Vladimir Putin and other Russian leaders ordered the downing of Kaczynski`s plane, which crashed in fog on April 10, 2010. According to one fanciful theory, Russians produced fake fog to blind the pilots. Another claims there were survivors of the crash who were later shot.

No ranking Polish officials voice such views, which are seen as fringe by many Poles — though they have been encouraged by Jaroslaw Kaczynski, a conservative party leader who is the late president`s surviving twin.

A Polish government investigation determined that the crash was primarily caused by inadequate pilot training and errors but that poor guidance from Russian air traffic controllers also contributed.

The new autopsies form part of a separate investigation by military prosecutors aimed at determining whether anyone bears blame for any crimes. No charges have been brought yet.

Andrei Kovalyov, the head of the Russian Centre for Forensic Expertise, which conducted the autopsies, defended his group`s work, and said if there are errors it is because the bodies were very badly disfigured in the plane crash.

"We have performed the genetic research and inspections of the bodies to international standard," Kovalyov said. "Any discrepancies, if they exist, are likely rooted not in badly performed autopsies but the fact that the bodies were fragmented. When remains of the numerous victims get mixed up inside the cabin there can be problems regarding the attribution of body parts."

Many Poles easily accept the Russian explanation and see no need for the exhumations, feeling that it doesn`t change the larger picture of the tragedy.

Even Poland`s Prime Minister Donald Tusk said it`s hard to expect perfect reports given "what state the bodies were in after the crash”.

But, he added: "You have to respect the needs of the families, who want to have 100 percent certainty that the Russian documentation is consistent with their knowledge and the findings of Polish prosecutors."

The first victim to be exhumed, the late conservative lawmaker Zbigniew Wassermann, had a report filled with mistakes. News reports said it described organs that that been surgically removed years before and incorrectly described bone fractures he had suffered.

Neither prosecutors nor his family would give precise details, but his daughter Malgorzata Wassermann confirmed that general picture.

"The document from the Russian autopsy was taken out of the blue," she said. "It disagreed with the facts: It described things that did not exist and did not describe things that were there."

His new autopsy, carried out in August, corrected the record but did not change the larger conclusions about the cause of his death, said Colonel Ireneusz Szelag, a spokesman for the prosecutors.

Another lawmaker, Przemyslaw Gosiewski, was exhumed on Monday. The Russian autopsy report described him as 1.8 meters tall (5 foot 9), when in fact he was 20 centimetres (nearly 8 inches) shorter, according to the law firm representing the family.

The report also failed to mention bone defects resulting from childhood polio.

"Glaring irregularities in the documentation mean there can`t be certainty if an autopsy was even carried out," said Rafal Rogalski, the Gosiewski family lawyer.

In the case of the third exhumation, family members of Janusz Kurtyka, the head of a state historical institute, doubt that an autopsy was performed because they saw no marks on his body indicating a post-mortem, Szelag said.

Neither officials nor the family would reveal further details about Kurtyka`s case.

Lech Kaczynski was a deeply patriotic leader who was sceptical of Russia, a historic foe that invaded Poland`s eastern half during World War II and controlled the country during the Cold War. Most of the people travelling with him were political allies who shared his views, so it`s no surprise their families would voice distrust in Russia after the crash.

The presidential delegation was travelling to honour 22,000 Polish officers murdered by Josef Stalin`s secret police at the start of World War II in the Katyn forest and other locations. That symbolism only added to the national grief and to the suspicions.

Bureau Report

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