(WARSAW, Poland) — The popular liberal mayor of the Polish port city of Gdansk died on Monday after he was stabbed during a charity event the previous evening by an ex-convict who stormed onstage and said it was revenge against the country’s main opposition party.
Pawel Adamowicz, 53, died as a result of wounds to the heart and abdomen in spite of efforts to save him that involved a five-hour operation and blood transfusions, Health Minister Lukasz Szumowski said.
“The fight for his life has been lost,” Szumowski said.
The assassination of Adamowicz, a six-term mayor who often mingled freely with citizens of his city, sent Poland into shock.
Even before his death was announced, marches against violence were being planned to take place across Poland in the evening. In Gdansk, the city flag was lowered to half-staff and Masses were planned, including one in Warsaw that Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki planned to attend.
The right-wing ruling Law and Justice party faced accusations from its critics that an atmosphere of hatred against Adamowicz and other liberal political opponents helped instigate the attack.
Government officials pushed back against that accusation, strongly denouncing the attack and stressing that the 27-year-old perpetrator had a history of violent bank robberies and possible mental illness.
The ex-convict rushed onto the stage with a knife Sunday and stabbed Adamowicz then seized a microphone and said it was revenge against the opposition Civic Platform party, which Adamowicz belonged to for many years.
Identifying himself as Stefan, he said he had been wrongly imprisoned under a Civic Platform-led government.
“I was jailed but innocent,” he told the audience of thousands. “Civic Platform tortured me. That’s why Adamowicz just died.”
Donald Tusk, a founder of Civic Platform who was prime minister when the attacker was imprisoned and who is now the president of the European Council, was traveling to Gdansk, his own hometown, to pay his respects, an aide said.
“Pawel Adamowicz, Mayor of Gdansk, a man of Solidarity and freedom, a European, my good friend, has been murdered. May he rest in peace,” Tusk tweeted.
Deputy Chief Prosecutor Krzysztof Sierak said there were questions about the mental state of the attacker, who used a 14.5-centimeter (5.5-inch) knife on Adamowicz, and that two psychiatrists will examine him. He had served 5½ years in prison and was released toward the end of last year. On Monday he was charged with murder.
Adamowicz, who had been the city’s mayor for more than 20 years, grabbed his belly and collapsed in front of the audience during the “Lights to Heaven” fundraiser organized by the Great Orchestra of Christmas Charity. He had been out on the streets of his city earlier in the day to collect money along with volunteers across the country and spoke of tolerance and love just before he was stabbed.
Jerzy Owsiak, the head of the charity, said on Monday that he was resigning from his position but would continue to work with the organization, which raises money for equipment for children in the cash-strapped state hospitals.
Owsiak said he himself has been the target of threats and hate messages, including by some right-wing lawmakers, but that he is not getting any help from the police.
He told a news conference that recently the level of public criticism is “touching on Nazi, fascist language, on threats.”
The attack triggered an outpouring of grief. Many donated blood in Gdansk on Monday. Some said they were given time off work to help save Adamowicz.
Ruling party leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the country’s most powerful politician, expressed his “great pain” and solidarity with Adamowicz’s family.
The government’s critics, however, said that they believed that animosity voiced against Adamowicz by officials from Kaczynski’s party, sometimes carried on state television, as well as by extremists from other groups, played a role.
Adamowicz was part of the democratic opposition formed in Gdansk under the leadership of Lech Walesa during the 1980s. After leaving Civic Platform, he was re-elected to a sixth term as an independent candidate in the fall.
As mayor, he was a progressive voice, supporting sex education in schools, LGBT rights and tolerance for minorities. He showed solidarity with the Jewish community when Gdansk synagogue had its windows broken last year, strongly denouncing the vandalism.
Adamowicz also advocated bringing wounded Syrian children to Gdansk for medical treatment, a plan, however, blocked by the Law and Justice government. After he took that stand, a far-right group, the All-Polish Youth, issued what they called a “political death notice” for Adamowicz.
The last politically motivated attack in Poland was in 2010 in Lodz when a man shouting that he wanted to kill Law and Justice party leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski fatally shot an aide to one of the party’s European Parliament lawmakers.
Kaczynski, at the time an opposition leader, blamed the attack on an “atmosphere of hate” under Civic Platform.
Adamowicz is survived by his wife and two daughters. Funeral arrangements have not yet been announced, though the president said the day of the funeral would be a day of national mourning.