Judicial harassment of pro-abortion activist & activists helping refugees at Poland/Belarus border

Judicial harassment of pro-abortion activist & activists helping refugees at Poland/Belarus border
A vigil is held for Agnieszka T who died after being denied an abortion (Omar Marques/Getty Images).

Introduction

COVID-19 developments

From 28th March 2022, Poland removed the last remaining coronavirus restrictions in the country. The requirement to wear masks in indoor spaces and to quarantine if contracting the virus no longer apply. The only exception is healthcare facilities, where masks are still mandatory.

Providing refuge for Ukrainians

According to Polish border control, between 24th February 2022 and 25th April 2022, 2,96 million people crossed the Polish-Ukrainian border, following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. According to the Polish government, about 2 million Ukrainians are still in Poland. By 22nd April 2022, almost one million Ukrainian refugees obtained a Polish national identity (PESEL) number, which gives them access to various public services and benefits. Ukrainian refugees are being helped by civil society, religious organisations, businesses and private individuals. A March 2022 poll indicates that almost 95% of the public supports the acceptance of refugees. While the Polish government is claiming responsibility for welcoming and aiding Ukrainian refugees, civil society and activists state that they have mobilised to provide support to individuals fleeing Ukraine.

In comparison, the situation at the Polish-Belarusian border is very different (see previous updates). Poland’s government extended the exclusion zone along the border until 30th June 2022. The restrictions, which ban non-residents, including the media and NGOs, from entering the area without special permission, have been in place since September 2021, initially through the state of emergency. Once this expired newly introduced legislation in November 2021 imposed the same restrictions. The exclusion zone was introduced in response to tens of thousands of people – mostly from the Middle East – attempting to cross in a crisis engineered by Belarus’ president Alexander Lukashenko.

Rule of law developments

Contrary to government expectations, Poland’s support of Ukrainian refugees was not enough to resultin the unblocking of loans and grants from the EU’s coronavirus recovery programme. For the funds to be released, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said that Poland needs to fulfill three criteria for restoring the rule of law set out in rulings of the Court of Justice of the EU, which includes dismantling the judicial disciplinary chamber in Poland’s Supreme Court, reforming the disciplinary regime for judges and reinstalling unlawfully dismissed judges. For years, Polish authorities have consistently refused to meaningfully comply with the Commission’s recommendations and decisions by Europe’s top courts.

Association

Harassing humanitarian activists

Besides building a wall spanning almost half the length of the Polish-Belarusian border to keep African and Middle-Eastern immigrants away, Poland is increasingly criminalising humanitarian work in the area. Activists who previously received small fines for helping refugees are now charged with “organising an illegal border crossing”, which is a criminal offence punishable by eight years in prison.

In one instance, for example, on 23rd March 2022, four activists of Grupa Granica, an organisation helping refugees, were detained for people smuggling. The activists said that they were providing humanitarian aid to a family with seven children who had been stuck at the border for three months.

“When they helped refugees from Ukraine they were heroes, now for providing that same help in Podlasie, they are criminals. The family [the activists were helping] had been in the forest for many days, without water, food, or shelter. The activists saved their lives by providing transport in their cars. [...] The accusations are absurd because none of the activists helped anyone cross the border. The aid they provided prevented exhausted people from dying on Polish territory,” said Grupa Granica.

In another instance, on 25th March 2022, a volunteer with the Club of Catholic Intelligentsia, Weronika Klemba, was also arrested and later charged with organising an illegal border crossing.

In both cases, the prosecutor’s office asked for pre-trial detention of three months. On 13th and 14th April 2022, respectively, the court denied this request.

Funding for NGOs supporting Ukrainian refugees

In March 2022, the Polish government announced that it was allocating funding to NGOs for Ukraine crisis support. In April 2022, the list of the winning 130 organisations was published. The Open Dialogue Foundation has pointed out that while they have all the relevant experience, they did not receive any support, while the National Guard Association received a quarter of a million zlotys (top 10/130, roughly 55 thousand Euros). The National Guard Association is a far-right organisation regularly subsidised by the Polish government. The organisation was actively contributing to pushing back refugees at the Poland/Belarus border.

“We have been supporting Ukrainians since the second day of the Russian invasion. We’ve set up a hotline connecting people in need of housing with those who can offer them accommodation. In this way, we’ve already helped some 6,000 war refugees find a temporary home. We also take care of the relocation process of Ukrainian refugees to other EU countries. Our volunteers are there to help refugees at the Warsaw East Railway Station and at the border with Ukraine. Several dozen people use their own cars to get Ukrainians to their places of accommodation”, Martin Mycielski, vice president of the Open Dialogue Foundation told Gazeta Wyborcza.

Mycielski emphasised that funding the National Guard which has been vocally anti-immigrant while not funding the ODF which has been working with Ukrainian refugees for years is clearly a politically motivated decision by the Polish government.

Disciplinary proceedings against judges

Disciplinary proceedings have been launched against four judges, Dorota Zabłudowska, Waldemar Żurek, Paweł Juszczyszyn, and Piotr Gąciarek, for attending an event in November 2021 organised by CSO the Committee for the Defence of Democracy (KOD), which has repeatedly stood up against the government’s overhaul of the judiciary. Opposition leader Donald Tusk was among the speakers at the event. If the judges are found guilty of engaging in political activity, they could be removed from office. The judges who attended have spoken against the Polish government’s continuous attempts to undermine democracy and the rule of law

Peaceful Assembly

Women’s rights in the spotlight

Protest against sexual abuse

In late March 2022, students protested at the University of Warsaw, accusing the institution of not taking appropriate action against sexual abuse. The protest was prompted by revelations that a prominent professor had been sexually harassing students for decades with the university turning a blind eye to it and the professor being allowed to retire “as if nothing happened”.

Death of a pregnant woman who was denied abortion sparks protests

As reported earlier on the CIVICUS Monitor, Poland has an extremely strict abortion law. On 22nd October 2020, the Constitutional Tribunal of Poland ruled thataccess to abortion care on the grounds of “severe and irreversible foetal defect or incurable illness that threatens the foetus’ life” is unconstitutional. Ever since then, abortion is only legal if a pregnant woman is in lethal danger or when the pregnancy is as a result of rape or incest. Helping pregnant people with an abortion outside the two permitted grounds is a crime punishable by up to three years in prison. As a consequence, doctors are very reluctant to carry out abortions, even when it is arguably permitted.

On 25th January 2022, Agnieszka T, a mother of three, died after doctors refused to carry out an abortion. She was pregnant with twins when one of the foetus’ heartbeats stopped. Doctors refused to remove it and a week later the heartbeat of the second foetus stopped. Doctors only intervened two days after this to terminate the pregnancy.

On the evening of the day she died, protesters laid wreaths and lanterns in memory of her in Warsaw. A similar protest was held in the victim’s home town.

“We continue to protest so that no one else will die. The Polish abortion ban kills. Another person has died because the necessary medical procedure was not carried out on time,”- Marta Lempart from the Polish Women’s Strike.

The day after the death of Agnieszka T, the driver of an anti- abortion van featuring graphic images of dead foetuses (such vans are driven around Polish cities by a conservative NGO) was attacked in Warsaw, with the incident recorded on video.

Judicial harassment of pro-abortion activist

Relating to the ongoing crackdown on reproductive rights, Justyna Wydrzyńska, a human rights defender from the Polish group Aborcyjny Dream Team, faces up to three years in prison for supporting a pregnant woman who needed a safe abortion. In late February 2020, the activist sent abortion pills she had at home directly to a woman with an unwanted pregnancy, who had contacted her. The woman was in an abusive relationship which prevented her from travelling to an abortion clinic abroad.

"I supported her because I know what it’s like. Just like mothers support their daughters, lpartners should be able to rely on one another; I do not think helping someone in abortion is a crime. On the contrary – we should support each other – not just in crisis situations, but anytime. I’ve been supporting other women for 16 years. I will not stop."

Wydrzyńska is facing charges of “helping with an abortion” and “possession of medicines without authorisation for the purpose of introducing them into the market”, even though the woman she had assisted had miscarried after her husband called the police who arrived at her house. A year later, police searched the HRDs house, confiscating the medication and her computers. 

On the day of the first court hearing on 8th April 2022, a demonstration was organised in support of Wydrzyńska. Activists and supporters gathered in front of the court in Warsaw showing banners with slogans showing their support. A campaign in support of the activists using the #IamJustyna was also launched. There were reports of anti-abortion supporters trying to disrupt the demonstration who told police that pro-abortion protesters were disrupting their rally. Police as a result began identifying pro-choice activists.

At the hearing, only a limited number of journalists were allowed to attend, even though a huge media interest was foreseeable, for the “courtroom was too small”. At the same time a representative of Ordo Iuris, an ultraconservative catholic organisation, was allowed to sit in the courtroom.

Amnesty International called on the Polish authorities to drop the charges against Wydrzyńska, to “refrain from further reprisals against activists campaigning for sexual and reproductive rights” and to “fully decriminalise access to abortion in Poland”.

Expression

Eradicating liberal and critical voices

In February 2022 Ordo Iuris, the ultraconservative Catholic think tank aiming to“eradicate liberal values, tighten the law, change the language of the debate, fill key positions and build political influence”, launched a website to encourage people to report cases of ‘public insults' against the Polish state or nation, or ‘defamation’ of religious figures including the late Polish Pope John Paul II. Public insults against the Polish state or nation are crimes punishable by up to three years in prison. Offending religious sentiments is also a crime under Polish law, punishable by up to two years in prison. Ordo Iuris says that the website will be an “extremely important” tool to “hold perpetrators of defamation accountable”.

Banning Russian propaganda

In late February 2022, Poland’s broadcasting regulator, the National Broadcasting Council (KRRiT) took Russian television stations off the air following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. According to KRRiT’s decision, RT (Russia Today), RT Documentary, RTR Planeta, Sojuz TV and Rossija 24 cannot be broadcast on cable networks, satellite platforms or internet platforms in Poland. In March 2022, the regulator also banned Belarusian TV channel Belarus 24 as it “threatens the security of the Polish state” along with Russia’s First Channel.

Incidents against media and journalists

As reported by Mapping Media Freedom, several incidents against media and journalists took place in early 2022:

  • On 31st January 2022, Pola Lis, a Polish journalist and daughter of journalist Tomasz Lis (a well-known Polish TV anchor), received death threats over the phone, following several other similar attacks against (relatives of) critical journalists in the previous weeks.
  • On 10th February 2021, politicians from the United Right coalition in Poland repeated incorrect information about high energy prices and put the blame on the EU in a press conference. As the MPs repeated the incorrect data, TVN24 interrupted the broadcast and cut back to the host of the programme, who explained how the figures presented were misleading. The governing PiS party announced that a complaint would be filed with the National Broadcasting Council (KRRiT), a media regulator accused by press freedom defenders of making discriminatory decisions.
  • On 14th February 2022, three TV crews were excluded from attending press conferences on public matters in two cities in Poland. Broadcaster TVP3 Lodz was banned from attending a press conference given by the Lodz mayor Hanna Zdanowska at the Łódź City Hall. Later in the day, both the TVN24 and Fakty TVN teams were excluded from a press conference held by the power plants association Towarzystwo Gospodarcze Polskie Elektrownie, which has been running billboards with incorrect information about high energy prices.
  • On 28th February 2022, a Spanish freelance journalist Pablo González reporting on the refugee influx from Ukraine was arrested for carrying out ”actions against the Polish State”. Earlier that month, the journalist was interrogated by Ukrainian security forces and accused of being “pro-Russian”.

LGBTQI+ rights

IKEA manager acquitted

In February 2022, a district court in Kraków ruled that Katarzyna N, an IKEA human resources manager is not guilty of religious discrimination against an employee whom she fired.

The employee, Janusz Komenda, made offensive and threatening remarks toward the gay community and quoted biblical passages suggesting that gay people deserve to be killed.

The firing of Komenda in 2019 angered conservatives. The justice minister called it a case of “legal and economic violence against those who do not want to share the values of pro-LGBT activists”. The court however found that Katarzyna N. “acted in compliance with the law, fulfilling the obligation that was incumbent on her as a representative of the employer,” her lawyer, Daniel Książek, told the Polish Press Agency. The prosecution has indicated that it intends to appeal the outcome.

President vetoes anti-LGBTQI+ rights education bill

As reported previously on the Monitor, Polish education minister Przemysław Czarnek intends to expand the power of government-nominated regional superintendents over schools. According to the proposed amendments to the law on education (dubbed Lex Czarnek) that were passed by the Polish legislature in February 2022, the superintendents would have power over hiring and firing head teachers as well as keeping outside groups from operating in schools. Teaching unions and human rights defenders warned that the bill amounts to censorship, allowing the government to stop teaching on LGBTQI+ and reproductive rights. The ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS) framed the issue as an issue of “protecting children”, following the example of their Hungarian ally, Fidesz.

However, in early March 2022 President Andrzej Duda vetoed the law, saying that in times of war unity is needed. Minister Czarnek said that a new version of the bill will be filed and is already in preparation.