A New Zealand businessman has finally cleared his name over the deaths of dozens of people through a more than decade-long legal battle against a judicial system the British government says was repeatedly infringing his fair trial rights. However, the case is not over yet and is expected to reach Poland's highest court. Sam Hurley explains.

In the northern winter of 2006 a trade hall collapsed in snowy, southern Poland, crushing and killing 65 people - more than 170 were also injured.

The disaster gained the attention of the world's media as rescuers searched for survivors in the sub-zero temperatures.

It also shocked a Kiwi in Spain at the time, who would soon find himself held in a small and crowded prison cell, repeatedly denied bail, and at the centre of a controversial court case.

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The Herald can now reveal details of the criminal prosecution against Bruce Robinson, which saw him sentenced to a prison term before eventually being acquitted late last year.

Polish firefighters searched for bodies between the ruins of the collapsed building in Katowice. Photo / AP
Polish firefighters searched for bodies between the ruins of the collapsed building in Katowice. Photo / AP

Nearly two decades ago Robinson, a 54-year-old dual New Zealand and British national, took up a position as the CEO of Polish operations for the UK company Expomedia Group - a business which manages trade shows and exhibitions.

In 2001 Expomedia bought 51 per cent of the shares in MTK, a similar exhibition company.

During April that year, Robinson, an accountant by trade, joined the London office for Expomedia and started working with MTK as the finance director of Expomedia in Poland.

Robinson would go on to be a managing director of seven companies in Poland and Hungary, and said in a court statement that he was only physically present at MTK for two days a month to conduct reviews.

Nearly five years later a building owned by MTK was leased for the national carrier pigeon exhibition at the Katowice International Fair in the city of Katowice.

But, after sunset, at 5.15pm on January 28, 2006, the roof of that building - the trade hall - caved-in and crushed those attending the event.

Robinson immediately returned to Poland on his New Zealand passport to help with the investigation.

The building was poorly designed, cheaply built, and collapsed due to the weight of snow and ice on its roof, investigators' reports showed.

However, neither Expomedia nor its management had any involvement in the design or construction. And while Robinson had received an email before the tragedy regarding concerns over heavy snowfall he later received another message that the roof was stable.

Despite this, on February 21, 2006, Polish police arrested him along with three architects, another MTK board member and an employee.

The Kiwi was held under Poland's temporary arrest laws in Katowice and denied bail without reason several times while he was investigated.

He spent more than a year crammed into a 15 square metre cell with seven other prisoners, was only allowed out for an hour a day, and according to his family had just one shower a week and limited food.

The British government couldn't help - Robinson had entered Poland on his New Zealand passport - so his lawyer, Grzegorz Slyszyk, sought intervention from then Prime Minister Helen Clark to assist his client.

But, Winston Peters as Foreign Affairs Minister declared that New Zealand would not interfere.

The New Zealand Embassy first secretary consul in Poland, Mike Grace, did attend several of Robinson's hearings and visited him in jail.

Denied bail again and again, Slyszyk turned to human rights organisations Fair Trials Abroad and the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights with a report highlighting Robinson's case.

The Helsinski Foundation prepared legal opinion for Robinson and argued that the temporary arrest was unjust and groundless.

In 2007 the British House of Commons Home Affairs Committee also published a report about ongoing justice issues in the European Union, and specifically mentioned Robinson's lack of fair trial rights.

The House of Commons report said when Robinson was interviewed by Polish investigators on the day of his arrest Slyszyk was not allowed to represent him for much of the process.

Slyszyk was also not permitted to attend a court hearing on February 23, 2006 and was forced to instruct another lawyer, who was then also barred from speaking with Robinson before the hearing.

Legal documents Robinson was privy to also took months to be translated into English.

On one occasion he signed an application for preliminary detention but added, "I'm signing that I have received this paper but I am not able to understand what it says".

Robinson and Slyszyk were further denied access to the criminal case file and prevented from obtaining full disclosure.

Slyszyk was eventually successful with an appeal against his client's temporary arrest and the New Zealander was released on bail for $145,000 on March 5, 2007.

Robinson finally went to trial in mid-2009 along with ten others and faced the prospect of up to eight years in prison.

But the case stagnated and years of legal debate ensued before the District Court in Katowice eventually convicted Robinson in June 2016 and sentenced him to three years' imprisonment.

However, Robinson and Slyszyk took their argument to the Polish Court of Appeal and on September 21 last year the Kiwi man was acquitted in a final and non-appealable judgment.

The court also cancelled Robinson's fines and legal costs.

The architect of the building, however, was jailed for nine years and lost his appeal, while a former MTK board member had his sentence halved to two years.

The company's technical director was sentenced to 18 months' prison and two construction experts were each sentenced to two years. Three builders were also acquitted.

While Robinson declined to be interviewed by the Herald about his case, his statement to the Court of Appeal on September 8 last year reads: "My 12 months in temporary arrest, these past 11 years, plus the seven years of the District Court case have all taught me that most people find it difficult to face the harsh realities of life."

"When the MTK catastrophe happened many people tried to hide from the reality and their responsibilities, trying to distance themselves from anything to do with MTK; well I didn't," Robinson told the court through a translator.

"Over the past 11 years, despite all that has happened to me, I still fought for the victims of this catastrophe. MTK struggled financially to continue operating during the first couple of years after the catastrophe," he said, and added that reparation payment of nearly $1.2 million had been made to the victims by the company.

Slyszyk told the Herald his client has remained professional throughout the case and continues to cooperate with the Polish judicial system "to prove his innocence".

"The case was very complicated, time consuming," Slyszyk said of the hundreds of thousands of legal documents and hundreds of witnesses called to testify.

"In my opinion the case could have been run faster but the reason of delay results from ineffective procedural regulations.

"It simply was not an easy case for the prosecution office - it was a very difficult, long-lasting case for all the parties involved, the victims and their families, the court, defendants, prosecutors and us, defence lawyers."

However, incredibly, Slyszyk said the legal fight was still not over.

A general view of the wreckage of the International Fair building on January 29, 2006. Photo / AP
A general view of the wreckage of the International Fair building on January 29, 2006. Photo / AP

While the Court of Appeal judgement acquitting Robinson could not be appealed the prosecution could file a cassation appeal to the Polish Supreme Court, which can interpret the relevant law but not the facts of the case.

"We have been informed that the prosecutor has filed such cassation," Slyszyk said.

"The Supreme Court has the authority to overrule final judgment and submit the case for reconsideration. In other words the case may start from the beginning in full or in certain parts indicated by the Supreme Court."

And further complicating matters for Robinson - in the week before Christmas - Polish President Andrzej Duda signed into law the ability for certain parties to file complaints against any final or non-appealable judgment from a Polish court.

"We are currently analysing the impact of this new law on Bruce's case," Slyszyk said.

When the Herald approached Polish authorities for comment, Lieutenant Aleksander Czyzowicz of the Central Board of Prison Service cited Polish legislation preventing him from publicly revealing information about a person who had served a sentence.

A spokeswoman for New Zealand's Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT) said the ministry was aware of Robinson's Court of Appeal judgement.

Robinson is now the founder and commercial director for the Sapphire Group, a Central and Eastern Europe exhibition and events company.

A foreigner in foreign land: Where are Kiwis jailed?

Robinson had been one of more than 140 New Zealanders recently held in foreign custody or prisons.

And information released to the Herald by MFAT has detailed the allegation, crime and sentence of at least 143 Kiwis serving time in other countries.

Clinton Thinn, an Auckland man who was charged in California with first degree murder. Photo / Instagram
Clinton Thinn, an Auckland man who was charged in California with first degree murder. Photo / Instagram

There are at least 42 Kiwis in Australian jails for crimes including manslaughter, sex, and drug offences.

Of the 42 there are also 15 being held for the purposes of immigration detention.

In China, 19 New Zealanders were being held in custody, including two who are yet to be charged with any offence.

Fifteen were in United States corrections facilities, including one person serving a life sentence for a sex crime and another serving at least 20 years for murder.

Aspiring rapper and murder-accused Clinton Thinn was being held in custody for a botched bank robbery in San Diego last June.

However, while in jail the step-brother of former cabinet minister Nikki Kaye allegedly strangled and killed cellmate Lyle Woodward.

Thinn is now awaiting his murder trial later this year.

Former Napier City councillor Peter Beckett, pictured in 1998, is serving a lengthy prison sentence in Canada for murdering his wife. Photo / Supplied
Former Napier City councillor Peter Beckett, pictured in 1998, is serving a lengthy prison sentence in Canada for murdering his wife. Photo / Supplied

Two Kiwis are also in Canadian prisons, including former Napier City councillor Peter Beckett, who was found guilty after two trials of murdering his wife Laura Letts-Beckett at Upper Arrow Lake, northeast of Vancouver in 2010.

A jury took several days last September to return the verdict at the British Columbia Supreme Court in Kelowna.

He was sentenced to life imprisonment with a non-parole period of 25 years.

A cellmate from the early days of Beckett's time in custody also claimed the 2.03 metre-tall man tried to arrange assassinations on key witnesses to stop them giving evidence.

Antony de Malmanche inside a cell before his trial at Denpasar District Court in Bali. Photo / AP
Antony de Malmanche inside a cell before his trial at Denpasar District Court in Bali. Photo / AP

In Indonesian prisons there are five New Zealanders, all in for drugs or immigration related offences.

Antony de Malmanche, from Whanganui, is serving a 15-year sentence in a Bali prison for drug-smuggling. He was caught with 1.7kg of crystal meth when travelling between Hong Kong and Indonesia in 2014.

He claims he was the unwitting victim of an online scam.

Taupo woman Myra Lynne Williams (right) was jailed in Indonesia this year for two and a half years. Photo / AAP
Taupo woman Myra Lynne Williams (right) was jailed in Indonesia this year for two and a half years. Photo / AAP

In April last year Taupo woman Myra Lynne Williams was jailed for two and a half years.

A plastic sachet containing 0.43g of meth fell out of her pocket at Bali's Ngurah Rai Airport.

And Gregory John Harland-White was sentenced to 11 years in an Indonesian prison after being caught with methamphetamine in Borneo.

He was found with nearly 30g and had strapped the drugs to his leg with duct tape.

Gregory John Harland-White was sentenced to 11 years in jail in Indonesia after being caught with methamphetamine in Borneo. Photo / Facebook
Gregory John Harland-White was sentenced to 11 years in jail in Indonesia after being caught with methamphetamine in Borneo. Photo / Facebook

One Kiwi is serving up to five years in Finland for drugs, while elsewhere in Europe five New Zealanders were in Spanish prisons, including three who were yet to be charged.

Two New Zealanders were in prison in Qatar for unknown and "other" crimes. Their sentences are also unknown.

There are likely more New Zealanders in overseas prisons with MFAT only holding information on Kiwis who have notified the government of their circumstances or are requesting consular assistance.