Adam “Nergal” Darski, the lead singer of Polish extreme metal band Behemoth, and two people associated with the group have been found not guilty of insulting Poland’s coat of arms. Under Polish law, insulting a symbol of state is a crime that carries a prison sentence of up to one year.
The trial was the latest in a series of prosecutions against the provocative Behemoth frontman. In another ongoing case, he was last year convicted of “offending religious feelings” – a crime that carries a jail term of up to two years – for posting an image of a foot stamping on a picture of the Virgin Mary, but is contesting that judgement.
The latest ruling, issued by the district court in Gdańsk on Friday, concerned a poster from the band’s Rzeczpospolita Niewierna (Infidel Republic) concert tour in 2016. It featured a version of the Polish white eagle stripped of its crown and instead adorned with horns and serpents. It was also decorated with an inverted cross and skulls
The same court had in 2018 already acquitted Darski – as well as graphic designer Rafał Wechterowicz and Maciej Gruszka, who runs the band’s website and shop – of the offence. But prosecutors contested that ruling and an appeals court ordered the lower court to take up the case again.
Prosecutors demanded a sentence of 10 months in prison (suspended for three years) and a fine of 100,000 złoty (€21,250) for Darski, as well as nine months in prison (suspended for three years) and fines of 9,000 złoty for the other two accused.
Once again, however, the court acquitted the trio, though prosecutors can again appeal if they wish.
In her justification, judge Monika Jobska agreed that, “even for a layperson, [the poster] relates to the [Polish] coat of arms”. However, she explained under the law the insult needs to be against the state symbol itself, “not a graphic design relating or similar to” it.
The judge added that “according to an expert’s opinion the project was created by the author from scratch and is not a case of alteration of Polish coat of arms”, reports TVN24.
Jobska also noted that the people who originally notified the prosecutors of the alleged crime had not actually seen the poster in question.
“The symbols used were understood as against the faith. For these people, the faith is a synonym of Polishness,” said Jobska, quoted by TOK FM. But the trial did not consider the possibility of insult of “religious” feelings, but rather “state feelings”, she explained.
Although “the form and content may seem iconoclastic or unsightly, the feelings of other people cannot determine the guilt in this case”, added the court.
Following the ruling, Nergal took to Twitter to celebrate his victory “against the odds” and used a commonly understood code to insult the ruling national-conservative Law and Justice (PiS) party and the Catholic church.
Darski has faced a number of accusations of offending religious feelings, for the first time in 2008 after the head of the National Committee for Defence against Sects reported him to prosecutors for destroying a copy of the bible during a concert in Gdynia. Prosecutors eventually decided to drop the case, while an attempt to bring civil proceedings against Darski also failed.
Subsequently, the musician faced accusations for setting crosses on fire during another concert and insulting the feelings of Christians in Poland when he posted an image on social media showing a foot stamping on a picture of the Virgin Mary.
Poland has the joint-highest number of defamation and insult laws in Europe, according to a study by the OSCE. As well as offending religious feelings, it is also illegal to insult the president, the Polish nation or state, public officials, and even monuments.
Agnieszka Wądołowska is deputy editor of Notes from Poland. She has previously worked for Gazeta.pl and Tokfm.pl and contributed to Gazeta Wyborcza, Wysokie Obcasy, Duży Format, Midrasz and Kultura Liberalna