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On Monday, Poland’s Commissioner for Human Rights presented his annual report on the state of observance of human and civil rights and freedoms to the parliament. The report provides an overview of the Commissioner’s activity and describes the situation in the country in terms of the protection and respect for the constitutional rights of citizens.
Last year, the work of the Commissioner’s office has been largely defined by the pandemic and related restrictions. "In 2020, we received 72,000 cases – an increase of 20% compared to 2019. Among other factors, this spike in numbers was related to the growing number of threats to civil rights and freedoms, as well as numerous problems concerning the functioning of the state during the pandemic"- the Commissioner’s office summarized the situation.
- In the face of a pandemic, the Polish government has failed to introduce a state of emergency related to a natural disaster, which meant that many restrictions were unlawfully introduced by means of an executive order- Mr. Bodnar said. According to the Constitution, civil rights and liberties can only be limited through a legislative act. Yet, the government did so without the necessary legal basis. In this way, decision-makers imposed an obligation to wear face masks and limited numerous rights and liberties such as the freedom of movement, the right to public assembly or economic activity.
- Since May, we have been pointing out the illegal character of the universal obligation to wear masks. This was addressed only in October. In the meantime, however, many people faced considerable problems because of it- Mr. Bodnar said referring to the fines and administrative penalties imposed for noncompliance with the restrictions. According to the Commissioner, sanctions of this kind were a "constant problem" last year. In the end, many of these penalties were waived by the courts.
- Issues surrounding last year’s presidential election were another consequence of the lack of a state of emergency. While the election was initially supposed to take place on May 10 using mail-in ballots, the plan had failed to materialize. Eventually, the election has been rescheduled for June and July. The Commissioner’s office received a deluge of complaints. The rules of the electoral process were changed "while the game was ongoing". Postal voting was organized by the Polish Post Office. Voter data were transferred illegally. Candidates were treated unequally. Protests were suppressed. Many complaints concerned the inability to vote abroad – Mr. Bodnar said. In his opinion, the list of irregularities surrounding last year's election should not be forgotten.
Among last year's most important issues, the Commissioner mentioned the repeated attacks on non-heteronormative people: limiting the rights of LGBT+ families, stigmatization of non-heteronormative individuals, aggression in the streets, homophobic statements by high-level politicians. Moreover, numerous local governments passed resolutions "against LGBT ideology". Mr. Bodnar considered convincing administrative courts that four such resolutions violated human rights as his personal success.
- They are trying to make us believe that these are real people, but this is simply an ideology- President Andrzej Duda said during one of his campaign rallies. - The president went as far as to question the constitutional guarantee of the rights of these people – Mr. Bodnar said. In his opinion, the homophobic statements of politicians had considerable influence on the public debate and the protests that erupted in August after the detention of the non-binary activist Margot. At that time, Warsaw police detained 48 people.
- The issue of women's rights resonated particularly after the October 22 ruling in which the Constitutional Court decided to further restrict abortion laws. It sparked mass protests all across the country. The police response to the protesters became progressively more severe: arrests, brutal use of force, "kettling" people during demonstrations, and deporting protesters to police stations outside of Warsaw- Mr. Bodnar enumerated.
- Since January 27, following the government’s decision to finally publish the Court’s ruling, women in Poland have no right to decide whether they want to continue the pregnancy even in cases of incurable fetal defects. In my opinion, the current legal state violates international human rights standards- the Commissioner added.
Mr. Bodnar emphasized that last year was marked by an ongoing crisis concerning the rule of law and the associated successive changes in the judiciary. Only last year, the so-called “muzzle law” came into force, the EU Court of Justice suspended the Disciplinary Chamber, and Małgorzata Manowska became the head of the Supreme Court.
- In 2020, we have witnessed repressions against multiple judges and prosecutors, including the suspension of Paweł Juszczyszyn, Igor Tuleya, and Beata Morawiec - Mr. Bodnar said.
- Assaults on the rule of law have been a recurring theme throughout the entire year, and judicial independence was the primary target. In spite of all this, many judges had the courage to make decisions in accordance with respect for human rights, such as those related to the consequences of the pandemic. These judgments were of fundamental importance for the observance of civil rights and liberties in Poland- he added.
Adam Bodnar has been the Polish Commissioner for Human Rights since 2015. His five-year term ended last September, but he remains in office because the parliament has failed so far to elect his successor. "The Commissioner for Human Rights shall perform his duties until a new one is appointed"- so states the Act on the Commissioner for Human Rights.
Challenging the provision which allows Mr. Bodnar to stay in office, members of the ruling Law and Justice party have taken it to the Constitutional Court. The politicized Court was supposed to consider the case on Thursday, but it has once again canceled the hearing.
- As long as I’m in office, every single day, I will support the rights of Polish citizens. Each of these days is important, and that is what I choose to focus on, instead of paying attention to all the things I can’t influence- Mr. Bodnar said.
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