Beaten and prosecuted for standing up to hate

By Catrinel Motoc, Amnesty International

Just over a year ago Elzbieta gathered with small group of women in central Warsaw with a large “Stop Fascism” banner. It was 11 November, Independence Day, and tens of thousands of people were marching through the city, many wielding flares and proudly displaying racist and fascist banners. The march - described by some journalists as “the biggest gathering of far-right activists in Europe in recent years”- might sound like an event best avoided, but not for Elzbieta.

She and 12 other women joined the march, and once in its midst, they unfurled their seven-metre long banner. Another woman from their group filmed the action.

The footage she captured shows what happened next: a violent assault, in broad daylight by more than a dozen participants of the march.

What would you do if fascists were marching through your city?
Catrinel Motoc, Amnesty International

“They started tearing our clothes and I was kicked several times from behind,” Elzbieta tells me. “Somebody spat on me several times. They removed us by force. Since then I have a problem with my neck.”

Another woman, Agnieszka, describes how “[a]t first, people around us were surprised by the banner. Then they started kicking us, calling us names and eventually shoved us from the route. We hadn’t wanted to block the march, we simply wanted to show them our message and leave.”.

The women suffered injuries, bruises and cuts. One of them was knocked to the ground, lost consciousness and had to be examined by medics. There were no police in the vicinity to protect them.

More than a year later the women are still awaiting justice.

I was kicked several times from behind. Somebody spat on me. They removed us by force. Since then I have a problem with my neck
Elzbieta, one of the Anti-Fascist 14

In September, their attempt to get legal remedy for the violence and abuse they suffered was blocked after the Prosecutor dropped the investigation. The Prosecutor asserted that the attackers had not intended to seriously harm the women but were merely “expressing their displeasure” that they had joined the march. Whilst she acknowledged that the assault and the insults qualified as criminal offences, the Prosectutor concluded that there was no public interest to continuing the case and recommended the women to pursue private prosecution.

To add insult to injury, a few months after the attack, the women learned that the police had opened an investigation against 13 of them for ‘obstructing a lawful assembly’. Nine of them were subsequently charged and convicted, and now have to pay hefty fines and legal costs of 300 zloty (70 Euros).

The case of these 14 women is sadly not unique. For more than two years now, peaceful protesters have been experiencing effects of restrictive legislation combined with heavy-handed policing, surveillance and harassment. The authorities often fail to protect peaceful protesters from harassment and violence by far-right or nationalist groups and the simple act of peaceful protest can result in police custody and lengthy court proceedings.

As well as limiting people’s rights to freely and peacefully take to the street and express their opinions, the government has also taken measures to undermine the independence of the judicial institutions in Poland. Indeed since 2016, parliament has adopted regressive legislation that allows the government to put pressure on the courts and judges. 

The case of these 14 women is sadly not unique. For more than two years now, peaceful protesters have been experiencing effects of restrictive legislation combined with heavy-handed policing, surveillance and harassment. The authorities often fail to protect peaceful protesters from harassment and violence by far-right or nationalist groups and the simple act of peaceful protest can result in police custody and lengthy court proceedings. 

As well as limiting people’s rights to freely and peacefully take to the street and express their opinions, the government has also taken measures to undermine the independence of the judicial institutions in Poland. Indeed since 2016, parliament has adopted regressive legislation that allows the government to put pressure on the courts and judges.

And yet despite the escalating crackdown on peaceful protest, people like Elzbieta and the ‘Anti-Fascist 14’, are continuing to take to the streets and courageously demonstrate against abuse of their rights and threats to the rule of law.

The women remain steadfast in their fight for a fair and just Poland, where people expressing their views through peaceful protest are protected from attacks, rather than punished. 

Speaking to me last month in Warsaw, the women’s lawyer expressed his incredulity that not only are nationalists and fascists marching again in a city so blighted by these forces during World War II, but that those who stood up to them have been detained and dragged through the courts.

We are not only fighting for justice for ourselves but are also trying to expose the way in which protesters in Poland are targeted
Kryśka, one of the Anti-Fascist 14

“The harsh penalties against us no doubt intended to send a warning to others who want to challenge the rollback of human rights,” Kryśka, one of the 14 tells me. “But this will not discourage or intimidate us. We are not only fighting for justice for ourselves but are also trying to expose the way in which protesters are targeted."

This week Amnesty launched a campaign to support the #AntiFascist14 


This article was first published here by Al Jazeera English.