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Despite the fact that demonstrations against the ruling camp have been predominantly peaceful, the regime turned to escalating violence. The ruling camp’s objective has been to attack and intimidate its opponents, to discriminate against women and minorities, and to quash their protests. For this purpose, the state apparatus, fully controlled by the ruling party, employed the police force, not only anti-riot squads but also antiterrorist units, and other instruments of state oppression, such as public prosecutors and disciplinary measures ordered by some government agencies, eg. against teachers who allegedly supported women’s rights and students’ protesters.
Well before the presidential election that eventually was held in June and July, a fierce and massive anti LGBT+ campaign was staged and run by the state-controlled broadcasters (TVP and Polish Radio), by the ruling camp and its media allies, by its cabinet ministers (most significantly, the Ministry of Justice), and by the ruling party MPs and its local representatives. Moreover, the ruling party candidate Andrzej Duda used openly homophobic slogans and narrative during his (ultimately successful) presidential campaign. Therefore, this hate campaign had a practically official character, and did not cease after the election.
Encouraged by the Catholic church and Ordo Iuris, a fundamentalist conservative lawyers’ organization, many local and regional councilmen declared their communities ‘LGBT free zones’. There were nearly 100 such anti LGBT+ resolutions passed by local government bodies despite protests of LGBT+ rights movement, independent media, scholars, actors, and celebrities, opposition politicians from other local governments and parliament, and twin towns and cities in Western Europe. The anti LGBT+ campaign has been also vigorously supported by neofascist, far-right, and football fans’ groups. The archbishop of Cracow, Marek Jedraszewski, famously called LGBT+ people ‘a rainbow plague’.
Bart Staszewski, a LGBT+ rights activist, placed a few home-made billboards stating ‘the LGBT free zone’ on road signs with the names of municipalities which adopted these declarations. In retalation, he was sued by some of those local governments, and by conservative groups. The organizers of that anti LGBT+ hate campaign and their supporters among politicians and loyalist media workers claim that such ‘zones’ and all other public condemnations of ‘homosexual deviation’ are not a form of discrimination against LGBT+ people, but only a critique of the ‘LGBT ideology’. That Orwellian play with words and their meanings, typical of current regime propaganda, is meant to conceal the exclusion and humiliation, and human tragedies, such as suicides of young men and women hounded by their peers and communities, and other acts of violence and slander against LGBT+ people.
However, overt government repressions, crackdowns, and persecution of civil society reached a completely new level in response to the women’s rights protests against abortion ban imposed by the Constitutional Tribunal. The tribunal was illegally recomposed in 2016, in the first full year of PiS rule, and since then has been controlled by the ruling party loyalists headed by Julia Przyłębska, a judge previously considered unfit to adjudicate by their peers in the regional court. Despite her questionable professional record, Przyłębska was nominated by PiS-dominated parliament to preside over the highest constitutional court in the country. In October, the Tribunal ruled that terminating a pregnancy in case of lethally deformed or impaired fetus violated the constitution.
The ruling amounted practically to a full ban on abortion, stirring major outrage among women, particularly young, and causing mass demonstrations in more than 200 Polish cities and towns, attended by hundreds of thousands of people. Since late October, the protests have been led by Women’s Strike group headed by Marta Lempart. Now they have clearly anti-PiS and anti-government character, partly because of the brutal methods the police forces have been using in order to suppress the women’s rights marches.
There are various oppressive ways used to quash, intimidate, and discourage the protesters. The most common is the forceful and unlawful demanding of identification documents, and then fining a person, or sending her or him to court trial for participating in allegedly ‘illegal’ gathering. For the police claims obstinately that street demonstrations during the pandemic are illegal. This is untrue and contrary to constitutional provisions concerning public assembly which stipulate that spontaneous demonstrations and protests are entirely legal and do not require any consent by the authorities. In addition, protesters have always been wearing face masks and keeping social distance, unless they were being attacked or pressed by the police.
The police aggression culminated on November 18th in Warsaw. That day the police blocked and surrounded the protesters in a city centre square, leaving them no possibility of maintaining social distancing from each other, and then a few dozen-strong group of plainclothes officers beat demonstrators with telescopic truncheons, pepper-sprayed them in the face, yanked them, knocked down and kicked.
It was later revealed (thanks to journalists’ investigation) that the police employed special antiterrorist squad to assault the protesters. Also, the journalists found out that the police was ordered by their superiors to lock protesters within confined ‘pools’ in which they could be forced to identify themselves in order to be fined. That method absolutely contradicts the regular police demands that protesters should disperse to avoid the spreading of coronavirus infections.
Yet another, and severe, repression are cash penalties imposed by state sanitary-epidemiological agencies; those penalties are twenty times higher than usual police fines. In various cities and towns, people who were identified by the police during demonstrations are summoned by sanitary inspectorate stations to pay penalty immediately. Those who contest have their bank accounts seized by a bailiff; they can appeal in court but only after paying the penalty of more than 7 thousand euros in the first place.
There have been also numerous disciplinary actions initiated by school superintendents against teachers accused of allegedly supporting their students who participated in women’s rights demonstrations; namely, for instance, by accepting students’ leave of absence. Such disciplinary procedures must be ordered or approved by the Ministry of Education because superintendents are its subordinate officials.
Last but not least, during women’s rights protests a number of journalists and MP’s were harassed, detained, gas-sprayed, and even beaten by the police officers, some of them plainclothes, despite clear identification stating that both reporters and parliamentarians were on duty.
The Office of Ombudsman, run by Professor Adam Bodnar (his term ended in September, but the parliament has still failed to nominate his successor), has been intensely monitoring all forms of repressions against protesters, while maintaining rightly that spontaneous demonstrations are legal, and complaining about abuses of power by the police. Until now, ombudsman’s interventions include a few hundred cases of unlawful detentions and other abuses.
But there is also some hope in all the turmoil. Since October 2020 a large number of citizens realized that they had to actively defend their rights against oppressive party-state built by PiS and its dictatorial leader, Jarosław Kaczynski. There is a lot of self-help initiatives, money collections for those who were penalized. Lawyers pro bono assist and aid detainees and persons who have been convicted of misdemeanours or offenses. In short, freedom and civil rights demands are getting institutionalized. Masses of young people joined this protest movement; their experience in public participation should last and bring fruit.
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