Saturday, February 10, 2007

Kiwi in Polish jail 'held as scapegoat'

A New Zealand man held in a Polish jail for a year without trial after a building collapse that killed 65 people is being used as a scapegoat to shield government corruption, a former colleague says.

New Zealand-born Bruce Robinson was arrested after the snow-laden roof of an exhibition theatre part-owned by his company collapsed in Katowice, southern Poland, in January last year, killing 65 people and injuring more than 170.

A former colleague has started an online petition, which has already attracted more than 1000 signatures, and is calling on the Government and public to apply pressure for his release.

Robinson, 42, is the managing director of Expomedia, which owns 51 per cent of the building. Other shareholders include the city of Katowice and the Polish State Treasury.

He was arrested on February 14 and has been held in prison since. He faces charges of deliberately causing the danger of a catastrophe and unintentionally causing a catastrophe.

Eight other people, including architects, builders and the local government inspector who approved the building, were also arrested, but it is not clear whether they are being held in custody.

Robinson is suffering harsh conditions in prison, locked up for 23 hours a day with seven other inmates in a cell measuring 15 square metres and with only one toilet. They are allowed one hour of exercise a day and one shower a week.

Since December, he has been allowed one phone call a week to his wife and three children aged 13, six and three in New Zealand.

His case has been taken up by two leading European human rights agencies.

Robert Netkovski, a friend who worked with Robinson, said he was keen to start a campaign to free him.

Mr Netkovski said the accident was caused by a construction fault, as the building was unable to withstand the extremes of heat and cold in Poland.

Robinson was not to blame, he said. "There is a lot of corruption in Poland. The people involved in the building of the centre have needed a scapegoat."

An online petition he began has gathered 1235 signatures in support of Robinson. It is calling for the Government to fight for his right to bail.

Foreign Affairs Minister Winston Peters has said he cannot interfere in the Polish judicial process, and Prime Minister Helen Clark has refused to become involved.

A Foreign Affairs Ministry spokeswoman said Mr Robinson continued to receive consular support and officials were monitoring his treatment by Polish authorities.

Mr Robinson's family say he will not flee and have asked that he be granted bail at his next hearing on February 21.

They say he will stay in Poland to defend the charges against him and serve any sentence should the charges against him be substantiated. If found guilty, he faces eight years in jail.

"There needs to be a pressure, a political pressure and a pressure of the masses of the people for this guy to be bailed," said Mr Netkovski, a Macedonian now living in London.

"He went to that country with extreme zest. He made everything impossible possible. He brought a lot of heart to these people. And this is how he got repaid for all the good work he's done."