Poles seek answers after crime boss dies in Austrian jail

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Polish authorities have demanded an explanation after an alleged crime boss accused of murdering a former minister died in jail in Vienna this week.

Polish authorities have demanded an explanation after an alleged crime boss accused of murdering a former minister died in jail in Vienna this week.

Jeremiasz Baranski, of Polish stock but granted Austrian citizenship in 1998, was widely believed to be a leader of the Polish mafia. He was found hanging by his belt from the window latch of his cell on Wednesday morning.

Austria described the death as suicide. But the Polish response was swift and harsh. "I don't believe it was suicide," said Lech Kaczynski, the Mayor of Warsaw and a former minister of justice. "A witness was removed."

Marek Siwick, National Security Adviser to President Aleksander Kwasniewski, said: "Poland wants explanations of Baranski's links with the Austrian [secret] service, and whether such people might have felt threatened if he decided to talk.

"I am seriously concerned by the self-satisfaction of the Austrians. They say, 'These things happen. If somebody wants to commit suicide, then he can do it.' This was not a nobody."

Baranski was awaiting trial on charges that he ordered the murder of a former Polish minister of sport, Jacek Debski, in April 2001.

Debski had been celebrating his birthday in a restaurant in Warsaw called Cosa Nostra. He left with a 24-year-old woman, and shortly afterwards was shot in the head. He died in hospital.

Analysis of his mobile phone calls showed that Debski had called Baranski, who was based in Vienna, several times that night. Baranski was also believed to have been behind the murder of five people in a Warsaw bar in 1999.

Last September, three former undercover police investigators were put on trial in Vienna, charged with obstructing justice. One of them was a former head of operations for Austria's anti-Mafia squad, which is now defunct.

The men were accused of protecting Baranski from prosecution on a variety of charges, including involvement in the Warsaw bar murders and Debski's murder, in exchange for information. Baranski was suspected of masterminding a range of criminal activities across Austria and Germany.

His death this week suggests again that there is far more at play between Austria and Poland than either side is willing to spell out. Poland's anger, and Austria's defensiveness, are clear.

Krzysztof Janik, the Polish Interior Minister, said: "I cannot rule out that the man [Baranski] thought he had reached the end of the road ... But I cannot rule out that some people who are unknown to us speeded up this solution."

A spokesman for Austria's Ministry of Justice said it continued to believe that Baranski hanged himself, but added that it was known that he had feared his life was in danger from organised crime.

This was apparent, the ministry said in a statement, from conversations Baranski had via his mobile phone in prison, which had been tapped. "It is apparent that Baranski feared an assassination attempt by organised crime circles," the ministry said.

The question being asked in both countries is: where does organised crime end and state-sponsored crime begin?