Ninety-six people died, including then-President Lech Kaczyński, his wife Maria and dozens of top officials, when the Polish presidential plane crashed near Smolensk, western Russia, on April 10, 2010. The contested exhumations began in 2016.
The European Court of Human Rights delivered its ruling on Thursday in response to a complaint from two Polish widows who argued that the bodies of their husbands had been dug up without their consent on orders from prosecutors, with no opportunity to appeal the decision.
The court said that "there had been a violation" of Article 8 of the European Convention of Human Rights, which concerns the right to respect for private and family life, public broadcaster Polish Radio’s IAR news agency reported.
The court ordered that the Polish government pay each woman EUR 16,000 in damages.
'Respect for the dead'
Poland’s Justice Minister and Prosecutor-General Zbigniew Ziobro defended the exhumations in a comment, saying they were necessary to ensure “compliance with the law” after a series of errors and omissions made by the country’s previous authorities, including failure to conduct autopsies when the victims' bodies were brought back from Russia after the disaster.
Deputy Prime Minister Jarosław Gowin said that "special respect for the dead" was always part of Polish tradition and that the prosecutors were far from being disrespectful in their activities with regard to the families of those who died in the air disaster more than eight years ago.
Gowin also said that Poland would analyse the arguments presented by the court in the case, the IAR news agency reported.
Polish prosecutors started the exhumations in 2016 after errors were allegedly found in Russian forensic documents. Officials said at the time that the bodies of 83 victims would be exhumed – despite protests by some of the victims’ families – all except the four that were cremated and the nine that had previously been reexamined.
Ewa Bialik, a spokeswoman for the state prosecution service, told a press conference in Warsaw in April this year that the bodies of 77 victims of the 2010 Polish presidential jet crash had been exhumed by then in an ongoing probe into the causes of the tragedy.
She said at the time that two bodies had been wrongly identified and buried in the wrong graves. She added that tests have shown that a total of 69 parts of 26 bodies had been found in the coffins of other people.
Deputy Prosecutor-General Marek Pasionek said last year that pieces of two other bodies were found in President Kaczyński’s coffin.
Claims of foul play
A Polish commission reinvestigating the 2010 crash said in April last year that the plane was probably destroyed by a mid-air explosion and that Russian air traffic controllers deliberately misled Polish pilots about their location as they neared the runway.
The new commission, which is still probing the crash, was set up by Poland’s conservative governing Law and Justice (PiS) party, which came to power in 2015.
The party is headed by Jarosław Kaczyński, twin brother of Poland’s late President Lech Kaczyński.
PiS has long challenged an official report into the crash issued by the previous Polish government which cited a catalogue of errors on the Polish side, while also pointing to errors made by Russian staff at the control tower of Smolensk Military Airport.
A Russian report placed all the blame on the Poles.