POLAND – Reports of heavy-handed and illegal treatment of protestors by police

A survey carried out on 6-12 November among a representative group of 1,010 adult Poles using a computer-assisted face-to-face interview method, found that 29% of those aged 18-24 had participated in the street protests of the past month. The greatest support for the protests was expressed by people from cities with 20,000-100,000 residents (78% in total, of which 16% said they had taken part in the protests), followed by people from cities with over 500,000 inhabitants (71%, of which 18% participated in the protests). More women than men participated in the protests but the level support was equal. Overall, 70% of the respondents supported the street protests; 13% of respondents had participated in the protests (4% many times and 9% once). Only 25% did not participate in or support the demonstrations and 5% did not know.

Since 18 November, as peaceful protests against the Constitutional Tribunal ruling on abortion in October have continued, the Polish authorities are using increasingly heavy-handed measures aimed at stopping them. A state of emergency has not been declared, however. Hence, freedom of assembly is permitted, and it is considered unconstitutional to use “extraordinary measures” against the protestors. Officials say that protestors are participating in illegal gatherings that could affect the health of others, even though many protestors have been social distancing.

It has been reported that anti-terrorist police are being used, and that in central Warsaw, protestors are being detained and charged, and then taken as far as 30 km outside the city, and left there at night to find their own way home. There are also complaints that lawyers are not being allowed to enter hearings, and that journalists are also being charged as if they were protestors. There have apparently been threats of years in jail for organising the demonstrations and publishing the names/photos of violent police.

Amnesty International (AI) has documented excessive use of force by the authorities, including use of pepper spray, the criminalisation of peaceful protesters, and incitement of violence against protesters by public officials. They have called on the Polish authorities to uphold the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and to put an end to human rights violations documented by national and regional organisations. They said: “Women of all ages, from girls to grandmothers, have joined overwhelmingly peaceful protests to reclaim their rights. We are therefore horrified to see excessive use of force by police, disproportionate charges used against protestors, and speeches from public officials that could encourage further violence toward them. On Wednesday and Thursday [18-19 November] police detained dozens of peaceful protesters including a 17-year-old boy, who spent a night in detention for showing up at a small peaceful solidarity demonstration.”

A report on Wikipedia describes what happened on the evening of 18 November: 3,000 police surrounded the Sejm (parliament), which was starting a new sitting, in preparation for an expected protest. The protest started at 6pm but moved off. Protesters then peacefully gathered in front of the public TV building in Warsaw, where the police ‘kettled’ them* together with journalists covering the event, and used pepper spray on them. A woman member of the Sejm unsuccessfully tried to persuade police to allow a mother with her child, who were passers-by, trapped in the “kettle” by chance, to leave safely. The police refused, stating: “No, because no.” Plainclothes police officers attacked a group of protestors and beat a woman lying on the ground with an expandable baton. Plainclothes officers put on police armbands and “hid behind” uniformed officers. Another woman member of the Sejm showed her identity card and requested police to stop using violence. A police officer pepper-sprayed her in response. According to reports in Polish media, plainclothes police with batons used force on some of the protesters that night.

On 19 November, police came under criticism for using teargas and force on mostly female and young protesters. It was reported that several activists were forcibly removed by police after blocking traffic in front of the District Court in Warsaw. They had gathered there to show solidarity with a woman activist who was suspected of assaulting a police office at an earlier protest. She was charged in relation to an incident in which women-led protesters and far-right nationalists were facing off against each other, with police in the middle. Someone reportedly threw a flare at the police. Witnesses said plainclothes officers entered the crowd of protesters, some with armbands identifying them as police and some without, and used truncheons to beat protesters. TV broadcast images showed Marta Lempart, one of the leaders of Women’s Strike, on the ground in pain after teargas got in her eyes. The next day, she accused the police of breaking the law.

Interior Minister Kaminski told parliament on 19 November that the police officers used force because they found themselves “under attack” from the protesters. This has been roundly denied, including by opposition party leaders.

Police have also been accused of detaining and charging people for refusing to show their identity cards, which is described as an over-reaction to a minor misdemeanour.

Draginja Nadazdin, Director of AI Poland said: “We call on Polish authorities to… drop the disproportionate criminal charges against peaceful protesters. The right to freedom of peaceful assembly must be protected, and the assault on sexual and reproductive rights must end.”

* NOTE: “Kettling” comes from a German military term referring to an army that is completely surrounded by a much larger force. Ostensibly a form of riot control, kettling occurs when police officers physically block off a public space and push people into a confined area by surrounding them. While protest and riot management traditionally focus on dispersing crowds, kettling is about containment. When a group of people are kettled, they cannot leave until the police allow it. (SOURCE: gq, by Colin Groundwater, 5 June 2020)

SOURCES: Amnesty International, 20 November 2020 ; Amnesty International, 20 November 2020 + PHOTO by Grzegorz Zukowski ; rmf24.pl, by Adam Zygiel, 19 November 2020 ; abc News, by Vanessa Gera AP, 19 November 2020

SEE ESPECIALLY: Wikipedia: October–November 2020 Polish protests – a detailed, well documented history of events.