Poland's protesters will not be silenced
When 60-year-old Julia regained consciousness on a street in central Poznan in 2016, she was lying in a puddle of water. Someone was sitting on top of her and people around her were shouting: “Let her be!”
A few hours earlier she had left work to join a protest against a proposal for a near total ban on abortions in Poland, attending her first demonstration since the 1980s.
Now, Julia did not know what had hit her - on the head, as it happens.
She was soon informed by three young women that the culprits were two police officers. Her injuries were so bad that she was forced to go on sick leave for four days.
Julia filed a complaint against the police, but the district prosecutor in Poznan closed the case alleging a lack of evidence.
Nobody has yet been held accountable for the violence against her.
When 60-year-old Julia regained consciousness on a street in central Poznan in 2016, she was lying in a puddle of water
Assault on peaceful protest
Almost every week for the last couple of years, people just like Julia have taken to the streets in various towns and cities in Poland to protest. They have been demonstrating against the government’s ongoing attempts to restrict human rights, including women’s rights; growing nationalism and xenophobia; and threats to the environment.
Despite having been knocked to the ground, Julia remains determined to let the world know about the police’s treatment of protesters.
Disturbingly, her case is not unique. Harassment of protestors and excessive use of force by the police during demonstrations is the hard-hitting reality in Poland today.
Amnesty’s report “The Power of ‘the street’: Protecting the right to peaceful protest in Poland”, show the repressive strategies used by the authorities to silence people who disagree with them.
Those who participate in protests to express their dissent about government actions in today’s Poland are frequently threatened with detention and prosecution, or subjected to outright violence at the hands of police or security officers.
It is startling how people have become used to these abuses by the authorities.
“I don’t even count the number of cases the police opened against me” was a sentence we heard several times from the protesters interviewed for the report.
Since 2016, tens of thousands of people have taken to the streets of Poland to protest against repressive legislation aimed at curbing women’s rights and undermining the independence of the judiciary. Protestors have routinely been met with a show of force and restrictive measures that infringe their right to be seen and heard. Hundreds have found themselves in police custody and facing lengthy court proceedings.
In April 2017, an amendment to the Law on Assemblies came into force effectively placing a ban on counter-demonstrations in central Warsaw near where pro-government rallies were held. The heavy-handed enforcement actions by the security forces have been dramatic. Between April 2017 and March 2018, the governor of the Mazowian province banned 36 assemblies in Warsaw. In 2017, the court in central Warsaw received 632 cases against counter-protestors for breaches of the assembly law. This compares starkly with 2016 where no such charges were brought against protesters.
A chilling development
The heavy toll that protesters are forced to bear is the grim consequence of what is happening in Poland today, as it slides into a state where people are punished for speaking their minds and where it is becoming increasingly difficult – and dangerous - to publicly challenge the authorities.
At the same time as the authorities limit – in both law and practice - people’s rights to freely and peacefully take to the street and express their opinions, the government has taken measures to undermine the independence of the judicial institutions in Poland.
Since 2016, parliament has adopted legislation that allows the government to take control of the courts and judges.
Read that sentence again. It should send chills down everyone’s spines.
Independent courts are a crucial safeguard against abuse by those in power. They are often the last safety net to protect us if the government wants to punish us for taking to the streets to let them know our opinions.
If the courts become a vehicle for simply condoning the authorities’ actions, people in Poland could lose their right to fair legal proceedings.
An independent judiciary is a cornerstone of a society where human rights are respected - and those who perpetrate violations are held accountable and brought to justice. Once hollowed out, it’s hard to restore.
Poland is indeed on a slippery slope, at a bottom of which live people stripped of their rights.
This is not just bad news for the people of Poland, but for all of us. Poland is not an insular country but an EU member state. The authorities are now setting a dangerous example, which those hungry for unchecked power elsewhere might be eager to follow.
Despite coming under pressure, judges throughout Poland have so far upheld people’s right to protest, dismissing hundreds of charges against people who have peacefully taken to the streets.
Judge Igor Tuleya is one of those who has participated in protests against the government’s attempts to take control of the courts. When we spoke to him, he urged people to protest – while they still can.
“If the Poles themselves do not halt these ‘reforms’, the independent judiciary will no longer exist”, he said.
A proud tradition of protest
Speaking out for what you think is right is a proud Polish tradition. For decades, Poland’s political and social landscape has been shaped by a series of public debates and protests demanding freedoms and justice.
The people in Poland know that there is power in peaceful protest. They know that to participate in peaceful assemblies is an important way to challenge government policies and practices, and to let the people in power know what kind of society they wish to be part of.
If the Poles themselves do not halt these ‘reforms’, the independent judiciary will no longer exist
It is not too late to put on the brakes. It is crucial to resist the Polish government’s attempt to dismantle rights we may take for granted, such as the right to protest and the right to fair trials.
There is still hope. There is still a vibrant human rights movement that yearns for a society where people can speak their minds freely, be critical, and protest peacefully against what they consider unjust. Such a society is simply a better place to live and we know it.
And so do thousands of people who are determined to continue standing up for a better and fairer Poland.
This article was first published by Euronews. Click here for Amnesty International's new report on peaceful protest in Poland.