Polish Women’s Strike activists targeted by the state: Our livelihoods and families are under threat

Polish Women’s Strike activists targeted by the state: Our livelihoods and families are under threat
Activists report police using kettling tactics for hours on protesters (Photo by Omar Marques/Getty Images).


On 27th January 2021 the Constitutional Tribunal’s ruling, which outlaws abortion in cases of foetal abnormalities, was published in the Polish Journal of Laws, and came into effect. As previously reported by the CIVICUS Monitor, Poland’s abortion laws were already strict, and the recent enforcement of the Tribunal’s ruling means that abortion is now only authorised in cases of incest, rape, or when the pregnant mother's life is at risk.

Following the ruling's enforcement, protesters took to the streets, and demonstrations are expected to continue in the weeks to come. On 9th February 2021, Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) held a debate focused on the near-total ban on abortion in Poland, and considered the enforcement of the Tribunal’s ruling “an attack on fundamental rights, the rule of law, and core EU values”. The use of excessive force by the police against the protesters was also condemned by MEPs.

In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, it should be noted that Poland remains under a state of emergency until further notice, with public gatherings limited to up to five people.

Peaceful Assembly

On 27th January 2021, thousands of protesters demonstrated across Poland against the enforcement of the new law. The following two days were also marked by several demonstrations calling for the full respect of women’s rights and opposing the near-total ban on abortion. In Warsaw, police used vehicles to broadcast messages which stated that such assemblies were “illegal”. According to the Polish Women's Strike (StrajkKobiet), during a demonstration in Warsaw, several protesters were prevented from leaving the site due to kettling - a police manoeuvre that confines protesters to a specific area with the aim of preventing the movement of the assembly’s participants. Police demanded protesters show their IDs in order for them to be identified and charged some protesters for taking part in “illegal gatherings”. The Polish Women's Strike stated that:

“These tactics are being steadily used in spite of the fact that the courts of law acquit all of the unlawfully identified and charged participants of the protests. Yesterday's [27th January 2021] "kettle" lasted for seven hours, as the participants, for the first time, denied being ID'd and then charged, citing no legal grounds for such an action by the police. The standoff and the peaceful protest was interrupted by the police using violence, dragging persons to the police cars, and provoking dangerous situations - escalating instead of de-escalating. Detained persons were being driven around to police stations as far as 70 kilometers from Warsaw, seven different cities in total, as a tactic to disperse solidarity demonstrations”.

Eliza Rutynowska, lawyer at the Civil Development Forum (FOR), told the CIVICUS Monitor that, on 28th January 2021, approximately 100 people were kettled by the police in front of the Constitutional Tribunal building in Warsaw, and forced to show their IDs in order to be allowed to leave the assembly. Rutynowska stated there has been an alarming and increasing practice of police sending the protesters’ IDs to the Polish National Sanitary Institution -- an institution entitled to fine demonstrators up to 30,000 zloty (approximately 6,700 Euros) for defying sanitary regulations. The CIVICUS Monitor had previously reported the aforementioned concern regarding the imposition of harsh administrative fines against protesters by sanitary authorities.

Incidents of police violence, abuse of power and illegal detentions have also been documented multiple times. According to the Polish Women's Strike’s statement released on 28th January 2021,14 protesters were illegally detained during a demonstration in Warsaw. One of the detainees was Klementyna Suchanow - one of the co-founders of the movement. During Suchanow’s detention police were unwilling to provide information regarding her location for approximately two hours. She was released the next day. On her detention the Polish Women’s Strike said:

“We treat her detention as political harassment - decided and imposed by the ruling party against a person who is being treated as an enemy of the Polish State”.

In addition, on 10th February 2021, charges were officially brought against Marta Lempart, also a co-founder of the Polish Women’s Strike, for her role in the ongoing protests. The charges include “insulting a police officer” and “causing an epidemiological threat” due to ongoing protests during COVID19, “praising the vandalism of churches” and the “malicious obstruction” of religious services due to comments made during churches being spray painted with information on abortion. Shortly after she was charged, during a press conference, Lempart said:

“...it all comes down to executing our right to freedom of peaceful assembly. This is about us being activists, organisers and participants of the protests. It's about freedom of speech, media freedom.”
“At first it was light pressures with misdemeanor charges, and police harassment. Now we are talking about criminal charges, prosecutors being involved, activists being detained and harassed in a way that threatens their livelihood and families.... this is the turning point.... For everyone who is looking at Poland, now is the time to act.... This is about civic freedoms.”

Detentions continue to grow

According to the Rainbow Collective, a group of pro bono lawyers who have been assisting detainees, a total of 150 people had been detained in Poland thus far and the numbers are expected to grow:

  • 81 persons were detained overnight and charged.
  • 62 persons were detained, kept for a few hour and released with charges.
  • 7 persons were released on the same day without charges, after confirming their identity.

Regarding the unlawful detentions of protesters, Eliza Rutynowska from the Civil Development Forum (FOR) told the CIVICUS Monitor:

“Not every detention is legal even if it was conducted by a police officer or authorised body. Even though the police have the capacity and competence to detain people and ask for their IDs, police officers should know that there has to be a legal reason for them to do so because otherwise, how does that differ Poland from a non-democracy? These [unlawful detentions] are bigger than just the Women’s Strike, this is a fundamental assault on basic and civil rights in a democracy”.

Police brutality against protesters

During protests there has been ongoing use of excessive force, as documented previously by the CIVICUS Monitor. Incidents documented include:

  • During a protest on 20th January 2020, the chairman of the board of the Open Dialogue Foundation, Bartosz Kramek was pepper sprayed by police officers and thrown to the ground in the snow. Police allege that Kramek threw snowballs at them. In a media interview he said:
“One of them sprayed pepper spray in my face from a distance of about 20 centimeters. This paralysed me for a moment. I remember that I flew to the ground and was then put in a stranglehold. The policeman pressed my head against the ground with his knee.....They handcuffed me and dragged me across the snow to the police car."
  • Katarzyna Augustynek, a senior Polish woman known as Grandma Kasia, was one of the persons detained during the protests on 28th January 2021. Grandma Kasia, who has been actively participating in protests, was detained, handcuffed and harassed by police officers. Augustynek claimed to have been verbally abused and “brutally undressed in a dirty toilet” by two policewomen, whilst two policemen witnessed the incident. She stated that she didn’t have access to food, drink and warm clothes. The senior - who has several chronic medical conditions - only had access to medication after an extended discussion with the police officers. Warsaw police have denied the accusations, and the Control Bureau of the National Police Headquarters is currently investigating the allegations. By late-January 2021, an act of indictment was filed against Augustynek for an incident that occurred during a demonstration in December 2020. Augustynek is accused of insulting police officers and violating the officers’ bodily integrity due to allegedly having bitten, kicked and spat at them.
  • Videos on social media by journalists also captured police kettling protesters for hours and physically carrying or dragging protesters during a protest on 29th January 2020.

Concerns over detentions

On 11th January 2020 the Polish ombudsman released a report (translated from Polish) by the National Mechanism for Prevention of Torture (NMPT), after experts from the Human Rights Defender's Office spoke with detainees who took part in the ongoing protests. Some concerning observations, including the case of Grandma Kasia, were made in the report:

  • One arrested woman told the NMPT that she was “surrounded by a group of policemen” who “threw her to the ground, pressed her... and choked her". She reported that she heard the officers say "gas him". However, when they realised that she was a young girl “they abandoned the use of gas”.
  • Some detainees were instructed to remove all their clothes, besides their underwear, while others reported that they were subject to “a personal inspection consisting of stripping naked and performing a squat”. In one case, a detainee had to remove all his clothes and “stand naked in front of the officer.”
  • In one case, the NMPT observed swelling and bruising on the body of the detained person. However, despite the visible injuries - including to the face - the man was not examined by a doctor.
  • The NMPT also noted that one detainee was “kicked in the face by an officer while lying handcuffed on the ground” and then hit with a truncheon when attempting to escape. As a result, the person lay down on the ground and did not resist. Despite this, the detainee reported that he had received two more blows while he was lying down.
  • In some cases, there was difficulty in or complete denial of access to legal representation. In addition, some detainees were denied confidentiality when they had legal representation present. Ad hoc visits revealed that many detainees were not given legal grounds or any reason for their arrests.

As mentioned before, the tactic of transporting detainees to stations kilometres away from Warsaw has been used on numerous occasions. On this, the report states:

“It should be borne in mind that unjustified transport of detainees to police stations located far from the place of detention, and usually also from the place of residence of these people may constitute additional repression.”

Civil servants targeted

Recently, teachers and civil servants have also been targeted for participating in demonstrations against the near-total ban on abortion. Michał Sporoń, a Polish language teacher from Tarnowskie Góry, and Iwona Ochocka, a Polish language teacher and headmistress of a private primary school in Tczew, were charged with having participated in street protests against the restrictions on abortion. It should be noted that Sporoń's case was brought forward to the teacher’s School Board by Barbara Dziuk - a parliamentary member from the Law and Justice (PiS) party - who said the teacher “used vulgar slogans during demonstrations and sowed hatred among young people”. On the other hand, Ochocka was accused of “exposing young people to risk during a pandemic” and taking part in demonstrations with “unethical and vulgar content”.

Regarding the targeting of civil servants, Eliza Rutynowska highlighted that the Polish local government, which has allowed its workers to take time off to participate in the demonstrations against the restrictions on abortion, is now under the scrutiny of prosecution officers who aim to obtain details on who permitted such action.


Incidents against journalists

On 20th January 2020, two photojournalists from Gazeta Wyborcza were tear gassed by police officers during protests in Warsaw. Both photojournalists were wearing arm bands identifying themselves as members of the press.

In a separate development, on 21st January 2020, Piotr Żytnicki, a journalist at Polish daily newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza, was subjected to online homophobic hate speech by a Catholic priest during a live YouTube sermon due to his reporting. During the sermon, suspended priest Father Michał Woźnicki referenced a recent article and stated that the journalist would go to hell “for his sins” due to his sexual orientation. The priest held up a photo of the journalist, suggested that he was a pervert and that he should consider committing suicide due to his sexual orientation. Żytnicki has been covering the story of the ongoing legal dispute between the priest and the Salesian congregation in the city of Poznań. On Twitter the journalist said:

“Over the years of my work as a journalist I have encountered hatred from various sides, so this is nothing new for me. However, I would never expect such a vulgar attack from a Catholic priest.”

Censorship and media independence

On 8th January 2021, Robert Bąkiewicz, head of the Independence March Association, organisers of the violent Polish Independence Day March which took place in November 2020, filed a civil lawsuit for defamation against Polish investigative news platform OKO.press. The suit revolves around two articles published in relation to the ongoing near-total abortion ban protests and violence by far-rights groups (The parish priest of St. Krzyża on a nationalist militia: they defend the church against savages; the police wanted their help.”). Bąkiewicz is demanding a published apology and PLN 10,000 in damages (2,203.71 euros).

On 20th January 2021, a Polish conservative pro-governmental Facebook-like platform was launched. Under the name Albica the platform is operated by Gazeta Polska, a conservative weekly newspaper that supports the ruling PiS party. As previously reported by the CIVICUS Monitor, the newspaper in one of its issues tried to distribute anti-LGBT stickers in support of the declarations of “LGBTI free zones” in certain areas of Poland. Albica’s purpose is to combat the “censorship” that allegedly exists on other popular social media platforms as conservatives and right-wing supporters have been complaining about being “censored” online. Despite gathering more than 100,000 users in the first three hours after being launched, Albica was strongly criticised for technical, security and privacy issues. For example, a user was able to temporarily change Albica’s logo to the LGBTI rainbow symbol, while another could access data of 10,000 users. It should be noted that Piotr Glińsk, Minister of Culture, and Sebastian Kaleta, Deputy Justice Minister, were among the users that joined the “anti-censorship” platform.

In early January 2021, a draft law was proposed with the aim of prohibiting social media platforms from blocking, banning or removing content that does not violate Polish law. The draft law was put forward in the context of debates over the power of Facebook to restrict content from Polish far-right users, and is in follow-up to Former US President Donald Trump’s account being suspended by Twitter. According to the proposal, a “Freedom of Speech Council” would be established with the purpose of requiring social media platforms to restore the blocked, banned or removed content in question after conducting a review. Social media platforms that breach the rules and do not comply could be issued with a fine of between 50,000 to 50 million zloty (approximately 11,100 to 11 million euros).

Reporters without Borders (RSF) warned that the proposed draft law would pose a threat to freedom of expression:

“The need for regulation should not serve the Polish government’s desire to control news and information on social media....The freedom of speech council is clearly designed to be used for political purposes. We urge the government to reconsider this proposal which appears particularly nonsensical since it does not comply with the European Union’s proposed Digital Services Act which provides for the possibility of an appeal to an independent body,” Iris de Villars, head of RSF’s Tech Desk.

In a further threat to media freedom, on 10th February 2021, several Polish media outlets protested against a planned tax on business advertising by jointly suspending news coverage and blacking out their websites for several hours. The government alleges the taxation will contribute towards sectors severely affected by the pandemic -- e.g., culture and health -- and represents a necessary step in the fair taxation of large media corporations. However, media outlets claim such action will jeopardise media freedom since many are heavily dependent on advertising revenue for doing their work, and the taxation will disproportionately hit independent Polish news outlets as small right-wing pro-governmental outlets are not expected to be impacted by this taxation, and pro-government broadcaster TVP is financially supported by user fees and a 440 million euro subsidy.

Report raises alarm on media freedom

A new report titledDemocracy Declining: Erosion of Media Freedom in Poland: Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR) mission to Poland” by the International Press Institute (IPI), made key findings, which include:

  • PiS government has continued its “multi-pronged attack” on independent media in an effort to “muzzle critical reporting and undermine watchdog journalism”.
  • The erosion of editorial independence is likely to unfold as the government has appointed pro-government executives and journalists, which includes the public broadcaster Telewizja Polska (TVP).
  • The government has orchestrated a “coordinated and concerted campaign” against independent media, which “mirror tactics used by the Orbán government in Hungary”.
  • Journalists work in a “hyper-polarised society” in which threats and insults linked to their work have become a norm. Hateful attacks on social media are increasingly directed towards journalists who work on both sides of the political spectrum. Editors noted that reporters were “routinely vilified, discredited and delegitimised in smears in pro-government media or by PiS officials.” Journalists are often accused of being “anti-Polish”, “political activists” or “foreign agents”.
Five years of these continued policies mean Poland is now taking worrying steps down the path established by Hungary, whose government has in the last decade created and then exported a system of media capture unprecedented in the European Union. In a calculated cherry-picking exercise, PiS has selected parts of its model that are effective and found workarounds for those that do not fit the Polish system. The effect, as one interviewee noted, is that “free journalism is slowly dying in Poland.”