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Amnesty slams Warsaw for undermining freedom of assembly

October 20, 2017

Rights group AI has published a damning report into measures taken by the Law and Justice government that have weakened the rule of law in Poland. In particular it called on Warsaw to respect the right to free assembly.

Protesters in front of the presidential palace in Warsaw
Image: Getty Images/AFP/J. Skarzynski

The report "Poland: on the streets to defend human rights" focuses on several demonstrations against the government's policies since late 2015, when the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) government came into office.

Amnesty alleges Polish police and justice authorities have suppressed anti-government protesters. The report was based on observations by Amnesty monitors at some protests and interviews with protesters.

The report published on Thursday notes that Polish authorities have carried out prolonged ID checks of protesters, depriving them of their freedom of movement.

"The Polish government is trying to instill fear in those who want to peacefully protest," Barbora Cernusakova, a researcher with Amnesty International who monitors Poland, said.

"[It] is cracking down on peaceful protesters in a blatant attempt to dissuade further protests," amnesty said in a report published on Thursday.

Anti-government protests in Poland

Amnesty said protesters in July against judicial reforms by PiS had been "exposed to abusive police practices that were unnecessary or disproportionate."

Surveillance, harassment and prosecution

It alleges Polish "authorities use techniques such as surveillance, harassment and prosecution to disperse and prevent mass protests," insisting that these practices must stop.

Since winning power at elections in October 2015, PiS has embarked on a series of reforms of the judiciary, the civil service, state media and other areas of public life. It has also sought to unwind legislation on women's rights, triggering mass protests across the nation's main cities. 

In December 2016, parliament passed a restrictive amendment to the Law on Assembly, despite negative opinions from both the Polish Human Rights Commissioner and the Supreme Court as well as strong criticism from 200 NGOs.

The bill is still awaiting the signature of the president, Andrzej Duda, who refered it to the Constitutional Tribunal.

Amnesty said the government's moves "reflect an environment in Poland where there is an ever-shrinking space for the public to express its opposition to repressive and often unlawful measures by the state." 

It added that they also "threaten to have a chilling effect on future endeavors to express such opposition via peaceful public assemblies."

Mateusz Morawiecki on Conflict Zone

Amnesty lists PiS' legal breaches

Amendments to the Law on the Constitutional Tribunal had deepened the constitutional crisis that started in late 2015, Amnesty noted.

The European Commission initiated what is known as a structured dialogue with Poland in January 2016 under the Rule of Law Framework giving it until the following October to outline steps taken to remedy the crisis. Warsaw declined to comply.

In November 2016, the UN Human Rights Committee recommended that Poland ensure respect for and protection of the integrity and independence of the Constitutional Tribunal.

After the adoption of three new laws on the Constitutional Tribunal and the appointment of a new Tribunal president, the European Commission issued a complementary Recommendation last December, giving Poland two months to address "the systemic threat to the rule of law in the country.” Warsaw again declined to comply.

Under the Law on Prosecution signed in January, the functions of Prosecutor General and Minister of Justice were merged and the Prosecutor General's powers broadened.

Amnesty said these reforms had had "significant implications for the right to a fair trial and the independence of the judiciary.”

In June, Duda refused to appoint nine judges nominated for promotion to higher instance courts and one judge nominated for office by the National Council of the Judiciary and gave no reason for the decision.

A new Counter-terrorism Law was enacted in June, following a fast-track legislative process.

It consolidated extensive powers in the hands of the Internal Security Agency with no independent oversight mechanism to prevent abuse and ensure accountability, Amnesty reported, adding that foreign nationals were particularly targeted.

Women's rights

"Women continued to face systemic difficulties in accessing safe and legal abortion; a petition proposing to further restrict their access was considered before parliament at the end of the year," Amnesty said.

After mass protests and a general women's strike last October, parliament rejected a bill which proposed a near total ban on abortion and criminalization of women and girls who obtained an abortion and anyone assisting or encouraging them to have an abortion.

Media restrictions

In July, the National Media Council became operational and immediately appointed and recalled management and supervisory boards of public media organizations. "Its composition and the rules of voting allowed the ruling party to control the Council's decisions,” Amnesty said.

"The government's effective control over public media and the resulting restrictions on the freedom of the press resulted in Poland's drop in the 2016 World Press Freedom Index from place 18 down to 47, out of 180 countries," Amnesty noted.

Amnesty noted that by the end of the year, 216 journalists and administrative staff in public media organizations had been dismissed, forced to resign or transferred to less influential positions, according to the association Society of Journalists.

Amnesty said serious gaps remain in the law regarding discrimination and hate crimes related to age, disability, gender, gender identity and expression, sexual orientation and social or economic status. In April, the Council for the Prevention of Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance was abolished.

#CzarnyProtest: Polish women stand up against anti-abortion law

Authorities reject allegations

The interior ministry said on Thursday the allegations were "unjustified" in an email to the French news agency, AFP. The ministry - which is in charge of the police - argued that security forces had acted within the law.

"All actions by the security forces toward the participants of (public) gatherings are solely related to breaches of regulations, meaning crimes or offenses," the ministry's press office said in an email to The Associated Press.

"Since taking office in 2015, the PiS government has provided heavy police protection for street demonstrations organized by groups on the right of the political spectrum, including the extreme right," it read.

jbh/jm (AFP, AP)