Poland's president to sign Holocaust speech bill into law, defying critics

Polish President Andrzej Duda said today he will sign a contested Holocaust bill into law, despite protests from Israel and the United States.

Law calls for prison sentences of up to 3 years for mentioning 'Polish death camps'

Polish President Andrzej Duda announces his decision to sign legislation penalizing certain statements about the Holocaust, in Warsaw on Tuesday. Duda said he will also ask Poland's constitutional court to make a final ruling on the disputed Holocaust speech bill. (Alik Keplicz/Associated Press)

Poland's president said Tuesday he will sign into law a bill imposing jail terms for suggesting the country was complicit in the Holocaust, defying criticism from Israel, the United States and activists.

Andrzej Duda said in a televised address the legislation would ensure Poland's "dignity and historical truth."

Poland's right-wing government says the law is needed to protect the reputation of its citizens and make sure they are recognized as victims not perpetrators of Nazi aggression during the Second World War.

Israel has said the law would curb free speech, criminalize basic historical facts and stop any discussion on the role that some Poles played in Nazi crimes. Activists say the passage of the bill has encouraged a rise in anti-Semitism.

More than three million of Poland's 3.2 million Jews were killed by the Nazis, accounting for about half of the Jews killed in the Holocaust. Jews from across the continent were sent to be killed at death camps built and operated by Germans in Poland, including Auschwitz, Treblinka, Belzec and Sobibor.

Image taken on Jan. 26, 2015, shows the entrance to the former Nazi death camp in Oswiecim, Poland. Poland's president is set to sign a bill regulating Holocaust speech, calling for up to three years in prison for any intentional attempt to falsely attribute the crimes of Nazi Germany to the Polish state or people. (Alik Keplicz/Associated Press)

The Polish measure would impose prison sentences of up to three years for mentioning the term "Polish death camps" and suggesting "publicly and against the facts" that the Polish nation or state was complicit in Nazi Germany's crimes.

President Duda said the bill would protect Poland's interests "so that we are not being slandered as a state and as a nation. But it also takes into account the sensitivity of those for whom remembering the Holocaust is extremely important.

A group of children wearing concentration camp uniforms stands behind barbed wire fencing in the Oswiecim (Auschwitz) Nazi camp just after its liberation by the Soviet army in January 1945. (Associated Press)

But in an unusual move, Duda also said he will ask the country's constitutional court to evaluate the bill — theoretically opening the way for parliament to amend it.

On Tuesday, Israel's Foreign Ministry said in a statement on Twitter that Israel hoped that before the bill is finalized, "it will be possible to agree on introducing changes and amendments." 

Israel's education minister said on Monday he was "honoured" Poland had cancelled his visit to Warsaw this week because he refused to back down from condemning the bill.

"The blood of Polish Jews cries from the ground, and no law will silence it," Naftali Bennett later said in a statement.

According to figures from the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, the Nazis also killed at least 1.9 million non-Jewish Polish civilians.

With files from The Associated Press