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Poland marks Freedom Day with mass anti-government protests

Tens of thousands of people have taken part in marches across Poland to mark 27 years since democracy took hold in the country. Many used the occasion to voice their opposition to the right-wing government's policies.

A huge crowd marched through central Warsaw on Saturday, chanting "freedom, equality, democracy!" and waving Polish and European Union flags.

Two former presidents, leftist Aleksander Kwasniewski and centrist Bronislaw Komorowski, led the throng through the capital. Police said around 10,000 people took part, while city authorities put the number at 50,000.

The rallies in Warsaw and in other Polish cities were organized by the Committee for the Defense of Democracy (KOD), a movement that sprang up soon after the election of the conservative Law and Justice party (PiS) in November. The KOD accuses the new government of seeking to dismantle Poland's constitution and rule of law.

"(PiS leader Jaroslaw) Kaczynski did not expect this: that people would wake up to the cause of freedom," KOD co-founder Krzysztof Lozinski told German news agency DPA.

Polen Protestmarsch Opposition Komorowski und Kwasniewski

Former Presidents Bronislaw Komorowski and Aleksander Kwasniewski led the march through downtown Warsaw

Controversial policies

PiS has implemented a number of reforms that have brought state-owned media under government control, paralyzed the constitutional court and increased police surveillance powers. Its changes have

angered locals

and strained Poland's relations with the European Union and the United States. Earlier this week, Brussels

warned the ruling party

to roll back its overhaul of the nation's top court or risk sanctions.

PiS leader Kaczynski, meanwhile, told a party congress in Warsaw on Saturday that "Poles have a right to change."

"They have the right to build (the country) anew and make it better, more advantageous for the clear majority of Poles," he said, adding that his policies were safeguarding the country from EU interference.

Poland has celebrated Freedom Day on June 4 since holding semi-free elections on that date in 1989. The vote marked the start of a peaceful transition to democracy and the demise of communist rule. Full and free elections were later held in 1991.

nm/gsw (AP, AFP, dpa)

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