Poland's jewel smuggling case left a trail to officials

By , Special correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

It had all the ingredients of a good crime story: a Polish jeweler on his way to business appointments in West Germany or to the Amsterdam diamond mart when East Berlin frontier police intercepted his car.

What they found in the trunk of his car were diamonds and other precious stones. But it is more than just a crime story. The trail led right to the backdoor of Polish officialdom.

The press, which got onto the story in a way unthinkable a few months ago when they were inhibited by censorship, reported police hints that many people "formerly and at present" in high positions were implicated.

Recommended: Default

When Polish reporters, again in a style quite unthinkable before last August, pressed for names they were told: "They are names we see on TV and hear on radio , mainly people journalists write about."

"Names usually found on inside pages, or on the front pages?" the journalists persisted.

"Most are the kind of people who make front-page news," the police spokesman was reported as saying.

While it is true many Polish officials have clean hands, the diamond case is yet another illustration of the profound problems behind the present crisis in Poland: the ease with which many Poles in official or quasi-official posts were able to enrich themselves at the same time the country's economy was being so sadly mismanaged. Ordinary folk, for instance, must queue hours for meat, sometimes in vain, and wait 10 years to get an apartment.

Krakow police tumbled on to Roman Urbianak, a certified gem expert and manager of Jubiler in Wroclaw, after picking up several suspected diamond runners. In Urbianak's Wroclaw apartment they found two kilograms of gold, nearly 200 diamonds valued at $700,000, and a large quantity of synthetic stone used in expensive costume jewelry.

There was a telex, a "private" telephone line, and a list of of secret government office numbers. Apparently there were also records of close contacts with a former minister of trade. Files revealed accounts with 16 banks around Poland and safes at three of them.

According to the daily Krakow newspaper Gazeta Krakowska, Urbianak had several country houses, including one at Bielsko Biala in southern Poland, where bitter local feeling about allegedly corrupt officials was the mainspring of a prolonged strike in January.

There were records he had owned 30 cars in recent years. A new West German Opel was said to have been en route for delivery as he was making his last trip to the West.

Urbianak, a representative of a bona fide jewel concern who allegedly used his international contacts to feather his own nest, is something of a mystery. He said he had had only a primary school education, but no records even of that were found. He told of serving two prison terms in the 1960s; again, no records were found. He told police he passed through two military service officer training schools, but the Army lists him only as a private.

He had many trips through East Berlin to the West, but there were never any problems. He carried two passports, one private, one "official" for business. The latter ensured quick passage through border controls without luggage inspection.

That is, until Feb. 18, when the frontier police in East Berlin told him to open up -- and telltale diamonds and other precious stones were found in the trunk of his car.

Afterward, Polish frontier guards indicated he had passed through their checkpoint only minutes before they got a police message from Krakow in south Poland indicating he was wanted in connection with a diamond smuggling ring.

They alerted the East Germans.

Urbianak, a married, middle-aged man with an apartment and an office (for the state-owned jewel enterprise Jubilar) in Wroclaw, near the East German border, was extradited and presumably is awaiting trial in Poland.

Gazeta Krakowska began to ask questions under headlines such as those of March 4, "Is this only a diamond affair? Who is 'covering up' the criminal activities of Roman Urbianak and why?"

Censorship and just how it is to be relaxed in accordance with the strike settlement agreements with the trade union Solidarity last summer is still a controversial issue.

New legislation is still held up by disagreement over such vital questions as who -- the government or parliament -- shall control the censors and just what shall remain subject to censorship.

But the news media, particularly the newspapers, are not waiting. For months they have been printing blunt, candid exposes not only of the Gierek regime's economic folly, but also of the corruption and personal profiteering that mushroomed up in the spending-spree atmosphere of the 1970s.

With the recently disclosed diamond racket, Gazeta Krakowska began an aggressive job of investigative, probing journalism unthinkable in Poland a year ago.

Its March 4 issue revealed much of Mr. Urbianak's story following a police news conference. Then it began to wonder about the absence of follow-up and started asking if this might be happening because too many big shots had been found to be invol ved.

Share this story:

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.

Loading...

Loading...

Loading...