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Hitman's death is a reminder of an earlier Poland

Artur "Ivan" Zirajewski had accused Polish-American businessman Edward Mazur of murder.

That was the same year that Papala, an acquaintance of Mazur, was shot in the head as he walked across a parking lot near his Warsaw home.

By 1999, Zirajewski was telling investigators that he had taken part in a meeting in the coastal resort city of Sopot with crime leaders and a businessman to discuss the killing of a target identified as “the big dog” for a fee of $40,000. In later years, Zirajewski refined his story to name Mazur, whom he singled out in a 2002 police lineup in which Mazur was made to wear a red jacket by police.

However, Mazur was freed shortly after being arrested in 2002 and allowed to return to the U.S.

The case regained steam in 2005, following the formation of a government led by the right-wing Law and Justice party. The party's leader, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, espoused the theory that most of Poland's problems were due to a secretive cabal of former secret police agents, corrupt businessmen and criminals who formed a “network” that called the shots from behind the scenes. Mazur's checkered past and Papala's execution dovetailed perfectly with that worldview, and a breakthrough in the case could have been hugely embarrassing for some of Kaczynski's political rivals.

The new justice minister set teams of his people to work on the case, and an extradition request was sent to U.S. authorities, leading to Mazur's arrest. However, when the extradition case came before a U.S. judge in 2007, he threw out the Polish request and set Mazur free, calling Zirajewski “a known scoundrel and unmitigated liar” who stood to benefit from judicial leniency by fingering someone for one of post-communist Poland's most spectacular crimes. Zirajewski was serving a 15-year sentence for murder when he died.

Mazur's lawyer called the extradition attempt a “frame-up” and Polish authorities were fatally weakened by having to rely only on Zirajewski's testimony, without being able to come up with a convincing motive for why Mazur would have wanted Papala dead.

The current Polish government, which has distanced itself from the conspiratorial stance of its predecessor, has been slowly working on the case, including preparing for the trial of Andrzej “Nightingale” Z., accused of organizing Papala's murder. Now both that case, and any further steps against Mazur, are in danger of collapsing.