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- First the police and sanitary inspectorate, and now also the court. They rolled out the entire state machinery against me, just because I stood in the market square and said that I am afraid to give birth in this country and become a mother- says the 17-year-old Małgorzata. The District Court in Limanowa ruled that the teenage girl broke the law when she organized a women’s rights protest in October of last year.

The court reprimanded her for violating a law that prohibits gatherings of more than five people amid the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as for failing to register the protest with the authorities, but had also exempted her from paying legal fees associated with the case. At the same time, however, the court did not give her a chance to defend herself. The trial was held in absentia (the Polish legal system allows for such measures).

- I found out about my trial and the court order from a letter. I joked that it was a gift from the government because the judgment had been issued only three days before my 18th birthday- Małgorzata says.

An unprecedented ruling?

The girl appealed the court’s decision. - I go to a school with a curriculum focused on law enforcement. I’m perfectly aware of the importance of legal principles, and never wanted to break the law. I don't feel as if I’ve done anything wrong, and I don't feel guilty of what I’m being accused of. All of us respected the sanitary measures, had our mouths and noses covered, and we repeatedly told everyone to keep a two-meter social distance. Yes, we’re in the midst of a pandemic, but that doesn’t mean we can’t protest- Małgorzata explains.

Dr. Mikołaj Małecki, a criminal law expert at the Jagiellonian University in Kraków, sees the court verdict as controversial. - So far, the courts have been rather consistent in adjudicating in favor of citizens. They were right in claiming that the ban on organizing gatherings of more than five people is unconstitutional. This is because the government has not declared a state of emergency. But even if such a state had been imposed, it still couldn’t limit civil rights in such a way as to completely prohibit any form of public demonstrations and assemblies - the lawyer argues, adding: - The regulation invoked by the court goes against the proportionality principle. The court should consider whether a total ban on assembly is not too drastic of a measure and whether the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic, being mentioned only in the regulation, justifies such action. As I understand it, the restriction violates the Polish Constitution. Many judges have been consistent in invoking this line of argumentation while acquitting all the charged protesters.

In a similar manner, several courts in Kraków referred to the unconstitutional character of pandemic restrictions while refusing to prosecute senior members of the ruling camp who turned up at Wawel Royal Castle on the anniversary of the Smolensk air disaster last year – It is not an offense to disobey restrictions that have no legal basis, either during street protests or during commemorations of the anniversary of the Smolensk air disaster- judge Joanna Makarska argued at that time.

The sanitary inspectorate is still collecting evidence

„Gazeta Wyborcza” has been reporting on Małgorzata’s case since October. During a protest in the town of Limanowa against the decision of the politicized Constitutional Court on abortion, the police asked the girl, and several other Women’s Strike protest attendees, to verify their identity. It was not only the first demonstration she has ever organized, but also the first one she ever attended. The October Women's Strike protest in Limanowa has drawn nationwide attention because of the town’s reputation as a long-time stronghold of the ruling Law and Justice party (PiS). It was the same place where Andrzej Duda received a record 80,46% of votes in the 2020 presidential election – his best result in the entire Lesser Poland (Małopolska) region. As many as 15 out of 25 seats in the district council are filled by politicians affiliated with the ruling camp.

Ten days after the demonstration, a letter from the local sanitary inspectorate addressed to Małgorzata’s parents notified her about the initiation of penal proceedings for her alleged “violation of orders, prohibitions, and restrictions related to the prevention, counteraction, and eradication of COVID-19". She was facing a fine of up to PLN 30.000. Piotr Pokrzywa from the regional sanitary inspectorate told us that: - The administrative proceedings are still in progress; we are collecting evidence.

Limanowa police still questioning protesters

Poland’s acting Commissioner for Human Rights, Adam Bodnar, has also expressed his concern with the work of law enforcement officers from Limanowa. Mr. Bodnar, who launched his investigation into Małgorzata's case after a series of articles published by “Gazeta Wyborcza”, says that while analyzing it, he noticed several irregularities. "The Commissioner for Human Rights assessed that a considerable part of the actions undertaken by the police was carried out in violation of law" – reads a letter from the Commissioner’s Office.

The Commissioner has also raised the issue of questionable handling of the teenager's personal data, and above all - as Dr. Małecki also pointed out - the fact that the ban on assembly has been imposed by way of regulation and not through an act. It means that the demonstration in Limanowa was perfectly legal and could have taken place. Additionally, the protest was a response to the verdict of the Constitutional Court and was a spontaneous reaction, which made it impossible to report it in advance to the authorities. - Minors have the right to demonstrate their views, especially on issues of great social importance, and to this extent, they enjoy the constitutionally guaranteed freedom of speech- Mr. Bodnar said.

Meanwhile, “Gazeta Wyborcza” has found out that still more people are being questioned in relation to the October Women's Strike protest in Limanowa.


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