Poland’s civil society crackdown continues

Poland's civil society crackdown continues

Graffiti on a wall outside the Palace of Culture in Warsaw says: “I, a common individual, I am calling to you! Wake up!” The quote comes from the manifesto of Piotr Szczęsny, a chemist who set himself on fire nearby on 19 October 2017, in protest against government policies. He died 10 days later from his injuries.

(Marta Kucharska)

Spray-painted graffiti saying “Wake up. It is not too late yet,” alerts passengers outside Ochota railway station in downtown Warsaw. It is a quote from leaflets strewn by Piotr Szczęsny before he doused himself with a flammable liquid and set himself alight in front of the iconic Palace of Culture in October.

Szczęsny, who died 10 days later, accused the nationalist government of breaching democratic rules, creating divisions amongst citizens, destroying Poland’s forests and oppressing civil society. Describing himself as “a common, ordinary individual,” he also noted he was battling depression but that his vision of reality was not distorted, only more acute than others who share it, including many NGOs.

“Non-governmental organisations are targeted by the state,” said Anita Kucharska-Dziedzic from Baba, a local association that helps victims of domestic violence, on Radio Tok FM recently. In October, a day after women’s groups marched against an abortion law and the limiting of access to emergency contraception, police raided the offices of Baba and other women’s groups in Warsaw, Gdańsk and Łódź.

They seized documents and computers, claiming they were looking for evidence of suspected wrongdoing in the justice ministry under the former government (which had financially supported the organisations). They claimed that the timing was coincidental. However, the women’s groups denounced the incursions and said they felt intimidated.

The government’s policies have drawn sharp criticism from the European Union as well as from international rights groups. “Alarm!” tweeted European Council President Donald Tusk, a former Polish prime minister, who said his countryfolk should not sleep peacefully under the leadership of the Law and Justice party.

Then-Prime Minister Beata Szydło responded by accusing Tusk of attacking his home country. But the government, now headed by Mateusz Morawiecki, the former finance minister, also risks its losing voting rights in the European Council, with the European Parliament recently deciding to prepare a formal request to begin the process.

The jury is still out on whether Morawiecki, a former international banker who was sworn in as prime minister on 11 December, will change the government’s treatment of NGOs.

In October, Amnesty International criticised Poland for undermining freedom of assembly. Its Poland on the streets to defend human rights report documents cases of harassment and surveillance as well as the prosecution of anti-government protesters. The report slams the authorities for taking unnecessary and disproportionate measures against political adversaries that express their convictions in spontaneous protests.

“The Polish government is trying to instill fear in those who want to peacefully protest,” said Amnesty Poland researcher Barbora Černušáková in a media release accompanying the report, adding that space for active civil society in Poland is shrinking.

But despite the controversy, the governing Law and Justice party led by Jarosław Kaczynski, remains powerful. According to pollster CBOS, support for the government was 45 per cent in November, 11 points more than all opposition parties combined.

Pressure and counter-pressure

While parliamentary opposition to the government remains weak, activists are applying the pressure. Mobilised by the national Women’s Strike, tens of thousands of women took to the streets and managed to prevent a total ban on abortions in October 2016. In summer 2017, President Andrzej Duda vetoed two pieces of controversial judicial legislation – which would have given him greater powers to hire and fire judges – under pressure from nationwide protests.

“I am intimidated, but I am not afraid,” Joanna Pawluśkiewicz told Equal Times. Pawluśkiewicz is an activist from Obóz dla Puszczy (Camp for the Forest), a group opposed to the government’s logging policy in the primeval Białowieża Forest; logging which takes place in defiance of the European Court of Justice.

“There are some oppressive actions against us; our camp is being surveilled, for instance. But it doesn’t fill me with fear. On the contrary, it makes me act,” she said. “I don’t give a damn about being harassed by the police. The only victim here is the Białowieża Forest.”

On 9 November Obóz dla Puszczy blocked the forester’s office in Warsaw. At the end of the day they were forcefully dragged off by the police, handcuffed, strip searched, and 22 protestors faced charges of breaching the peace.

One of the detained activists, Kasia, who has withheld her last name for fear of reprisals, told Equal Times: “They handcuffed us behind our backs which is unlawful since we weren’t dangerous and weren’t fighting back.[…]They applied a fast-track procedure used for settling cases against hooligans.”

The police operations against activists were praised by an MP from the Law and Justice party, Wojciech Skurkiewicz. A member of the Environment Protection Committee in the lower chamber of parliament, he told the religious conservative Radio Maryja that these “ecoterrorists” had behaved in an unlawful and scandalous way, warning that a repeat of such actions in the future would force the police to take counter-measures.

Two days after that protest, an estimated 60,000 people marched through the streets of Warsaw to mark the 99th anniversary of Polish independence on 11 November. The event has been organised by far-right nationalists since 2009, and it attracts a wide spectrum of participants, including older people and families with children. But some participants sparked international criticism for carrying banners with neo-Nazi symbols and white supremacist slogans like “Pure blood, clear mind” and “All equal, all white”.

Top Law and Justice politicians like Interior Minister Mariusz Błaszczak and Ryszard Czarnecki, vice-president of the European Parliament, dismissed the criticism, describing it as a “march of patriots”. Błaszczak later added that the Polish state did not tolerate anti-Semitic or racist slogans but that the use of such language by far-right participants were on the “margin of the margins”.

“Freezing effect” on dissent

In December 2016, the Polish parliament adopted a law that effectively limits the right to free assembly. According to human rights watchdogs such as Amnesty International and the Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights, this law violates international standards.

The opposition group Citizens of the Republic of Poland alleges that during November’s Independence Day parade, police applied double standards by forcefully removing peaceful anti-fascist protesters while allowing far-right participants to march.

“Your duty Mr Błaszczak on 11 November was to disband this fascist march…police should not hide in gates and side roads; they should intervene,’’ Wojciech Kinasiewicz from the Citizens group said during a street protest in front of the Ministry of Interior later that month.

He also accused the police of harassing his organisation because members oppose the government.

Police, the prosecutor’s office and the courts have been pursuing more than 600 cases against Polish citizens taking part in anti-government protests, according to a recent report.

The Polish Ombudsman’s office said sanctions applied by the authorities may cause “a freezing effect” in society and discourage citizens from participating in public assemblies and other protests.

But for now, the government remains defiant. And so do many of its critics.