Poland's Lech Walesa wears protest T-shirt to Bush funeral
By VANESSA GERA
WARSAW, Poland (AP) - Lech Walesa is still fighting.
The founder of Poland's anti-communist Solidarity movement attended President George H.W. Bush's state funeral in Washington wearing a T-shirt bearing the word "Konstytucja" (Constitution), a symbol of a political struggle in his homeland against the populist government.
He and other critics accuse the national-conservative ruling party, in power since 2015, of eroding the very democracy Walesa helped achieve, mainly by eroding the independence of the judiciary.
Some of Walesa's compatriots criticized him, saying he should have worn more formal attire as he paid his respects to the 41st president at the Washington National Cathedral on Wednesday. They said it was not the time or place to make a political statement about a domestic issue.
But defenders say the eccentric and outspoken 75-year-old, once a political prisoner of the Soviet-backed communist regime and the winner of the Nobel Peace prize in 1983, has earned the right to do whatever he pleases.
Walesa said that the T-shirt, which he wore under a dark suit, was his personal gesture of farewell to a U.S. leader who "fought for freedom, fought for truth and honesty."
"Therefore, when I say goodbye, I want to say that the fight goes on, that we disregarded democracy in Poland, we let the populists and demagogues win. And today we have trouble," Walesa told Polish reporters ahead of the funeral.
Bush served as president from 1989 to 1993, a time when communism fell across Eastern Europe and Walesa became the first president elected to serve a democratic Poland, a post he held from 1990 to 1995.
Bush gave his backing to Solidarity in the final days of the communist regime and to Poland as it struggled to return to the Western democratic world.
In 1989, months after Poland's first free elections in decades, he bestowed the presidential Medal of Freedom on the former shipyard electrician at the White House, saying: "Lech Walesa showed how one individual could inspire in others a faith so powerful that it vindicated itself, and changed the course of a nation."
Poland's current leaders say that their overhaul of the judiciary is needed to fix a broken judicial system that they claim is still influenced by ex-communists. While many agree the system needs reforms, the changes have been condemned by the European Union and human rights groups, which see a power grab by a party that also has shown inclinations to erode media freedom.
Walesa's current struggle is also rooted in a personal feud with Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the powerful ruling party leader, a former ally turned foe.
On Thursday, Walesa lost a slander case against Kaczynski in a court in Gdansk, where Walesa founded Solidarity at a shipyard decades ago.
Walesa had blamed Kaczynski for the 2010 plane crash in Smolensk, Russia, that killed Kaczynski's twin brother, President Lech Kaczynski, along with 95 others, including top Polish political and military leaders.
In one social media post, Walesa alleged that Kaczynski, "guided by bravado," was on the phone pushing for the plane to land in heavy fog.
The judge ruled there is no evidence to back up such a "heavy accusation" and ordered Walesa to apologize.
Walesa, who also wore his Konstytucja T-shirt on the opening day of the trial last month, vowed earlier this week to keep on wearing it. He said he will even ask to be buried in it "if we do not achieve freedom."
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