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Poland exhumes some 2010 plane crash victims

WARSAW, Poland (AP) — One autopsy report describes organs that had been removed years before. Another adds 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 flaws in the initial autopsies performed by Russian officials.

The need for the new autopsies has 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. Russian authorities say any inaccuracies result from the fragmented state of the bodies after the crash.

Two of the 96 bodies were exhumed this week in Poland, following a first such exhumation August. Victims’ families and officials say other victims also have reports riddled with mistakes, and prosecutors say more exhumations are possible.

“There were discrepancies. Evidence gathered in Poland differed from information in the Russian documentation,” said Col. 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. Many also fault the Polish government of Prime Minister Donald Tusk for not being firmer with Russia in demanding greater transparency. This comes amid a sense of indignation that key evidence in the crash — black boxes, the plane wreckage and the late Polish president’s satellite phone — remain in Russian hands.

At one extreme, the flawed autopsies and the sense that Russians are not being fully transparent have encouraged Polish conspiracy theories claiming Russian leaders might have played a role in the downing of Kaczynski’s plane, which crashed in fog after clipping a tree at an airport near Smolensk, Russia, on April 10, 2010.

An official Polish report blamed the fog, pilot error and poor guidance from Russian air traffic controllers.

But Antoni Macierewicz, a conservative lawmaker who heads a parliamentary commission trying to clarify the reasons for the crash, said Friday he doesn’t believe the official Polish explanation and other theories need to be explored.

Suspicions center on the fact the plane, a Tupolev-154, was Russian built. Some Poles don’t believe the plane could have crashed just by clipping a tree, and find it strange there were no survivors when it was already so close to the ground when it crashed.

“A lack of openness creates conspiracy theories,” said Michael Baden, an American forensic pathologist who has advised some of the victims’ families. “You can’t investigate a major catastrophe in secret.”

Andrei Kovalyov, the head of the Russian Center for Forensic Expertise, which conducted the autopsies, said genetic research and inspections of the bodies were performed to international standard.

“Any discrepancies, if they exist, are likely rooted not in badly performed autopsies but the fact that the bodies were fragmented,” Kovalyov said. “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 it doesn’t change the larger picture of the tragedy.

Tusk, the prime minister, said it’s hard to expect perfect reports given “what state the bodies were in after the crash.”

The first victim to be exhumed, the late conservative lawmaker Zbigniew Wassermann, had an autopsy report that was largely incorrect, and described organs that had been surgically removed years before, Macierewicz said.

For instance, the 60-year-old had only a part of his liver left, but his report described it as being the entire healthy liver of a young man, Macierewicz said.

“The document from the Russian autopsy was taken out of the blue,” said Wassermann’s daughter, Malgorzata Wassermann. “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 Col. Ireneusz Szelag, a spokesman for prosecutors.

Another lawmaker, Przemyslaw Gosiewski, was exhumed on Monday. The Russian autopsy report described him as 5 foot 9, when in fact he was 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 an autopsy was performed because they saw no marks on his body indicating a post-mortem, Szelag said.

Andrzej Melak, the brother of another victim, Stefan Melak, told the parliamentary commission Friday that the Russian documentation was 25 centimeters off in describing his brother’s height.

Melak said he felt at a loss, and criticized the Polish government for not demanding more from Russia. “I don’t know what to do,” he said. “Our government doesn’t care about Polish citizens.”

Families are also angry because the new autopsies have been perfomed by state experts and they are not allowed to do their own.

Lech Kaczynski was a deeply patriotic leader who was skeptical 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 traveling 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 traveling to honor 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.

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