50.50: Feature

Women’s rights defenders are the victims of Poland’s broken justice system

The right to a fair trial is no longer guaranteed in Poland, say the activists protesting strict abortion laws

Irene Donadio 1
Irene Donadio
13 December 2022, 11.49am

Demonstrations were organized in Wroclaw, Poland, under the slogan - Stop persecuting Justyna. 7th Apr, 2022 | Krzysztof Zatycki/ZUMA Press Wire, Alamy

Women’s rights activist Justyna Wydrzyńska faces up to three years in prison after being charged with providing abortion pills to a woman who wanted them – the first case of its kind in Europe.

In 2020, Wydrzyńska, a member of Polish activist group Abortion Dream Team, answered a request for abortion pills from a woman whom she said seemed to be in an abusive relationship and had decided not to go through a full pregnancy.

But the abortion never took place – the pills were intercepted by the woman’s husband, who called the police. Wydrzyńska was arrested and charged with facilitating an abortion.

Today, she hopes her case will shine a light on Poland’s strict abortion laws – and the way the judicial system is being used to persecute rights defenders who protest them.

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At least six women are reported to have died after being denied an abortion since Poland’s Constitutional Tribunal imposed a near-total ban on abortion care just over two years ago.

At the time, the ruling prompted massive demonstrations across the country. The initially peaceful protesters were met with excessive force from authorities, who used tear gas, pepper spray and physical assault to subdue them.

These attacks were followed by arrests and charges for those defending women’s rights. 

Today, the judicial persecution of rights defenders in Poland continues. Prosecutors with a political agenda have brought spurious charges against activists, and cases have been heard by judges loyal to the ruling Law and Justice party.

We at the International Planned Parenthood Federation European Network (IPPF EN) have spoken to several activists in Poland as part of our Defend the Defenders campaign, which highlights their plight, fundraises for psychological support and legal assistance in court cases, and asks the European Union to take action to protect activists.

Wydrzyńska is one such activist. Speaking to IPPF EN, she said: “Empathy shouldn’t be punished, especially when someone is asking you for help. I feel there is only one chance to show that the law is extremely harmful. Even if I get a jail sentence, I am ready. I think this battle is bigger than my freedom.”

Under Polish law, people who have abortions are not criminalised, but those who directly help them are. The government and ultra-conservative right-wing groups want harsher punishments for abortion rights activists. They also target family members, partners and friends who try to help women access abortion care.

Wydrzyńska says Poland’s Ministry of Justice has appointed a right-wing judge to her case, which has been adjourned twice after a witness failed to attend, with the next hearing scheduled for next month.

It has been reported that at the trial, the judge will allow Ordo Iuris – a Polish fundamentalist organisation that campaigns against abortion rights and LGBTIQ rights in the country – to stand with the prosecution to represent the rights of the foetus.

Persecuting rights defenders

Activist Marta Lempart was charged under Covid laws – along with two other women, Klementyna Suchanow and Agnieszka Czerederecka-Fabin – for taking part in the 2020 anti-abortion protests. Each woman faces eight years in prison.

Lempart said her case has already been tried once and dismissed by a judge due to a lack of evidence. Now, the prosecution is trying again.

Lempart has 106 charges brought against her, including offences relating to breaking COVID regulations, blocking traffic, hanging posters, and littering in public.

Most of these charges are pending due to a stand-off between Poland and the EU. Poland’s funding from the bloc has been frozen for over a year, amid concerns from the bloc over the judicial independence in the country.

If the reforms demanded by the EU come to fruition, charges against activists like Lempart are likely to be dropped – but in the meantime, the toll on activists’ mental health and finances is severe.

Speaking to the IPPF EN, Lempart said: “We can’t count on courts to be fair for long as the crackdown of the independent judiciary in Poland is happening at the maximum speed. The judges' removals from the cases and replacements, based on political decisions of the ruling party are a daily occurrence.

“The government now aims for full power to decide which judge gets which case, taking overhead positions in all possible courts. Legal fees and misdemeanour fines are also hefty – if prosecutors can’t put people in jail, they want to cripple them financially.”

To make matters worse, the political atmosphere created and fostered by the ruling Law and Justice party means many people feel it is acceptable to intimidate rights defenders in other ways.

Some activists have been sent death threats and bomb threats by neo-nazi groups, and Lempart was assigned police protection after an escalating threat was made against her life.

And alongside her numerous charges, Lempart has also had a libel case filed against her by the ultra-conservative organisation, Ordo Iuris.

Glimmers of hope

It is not just activists under attack – journalists, politicians, independent judges and ordinary citizens in Poland also suffer from politicised assaults. In one case, lawmaker Joanna Scheuring-Wielgus faces two charges for participating in a 2020 protest, in which she held up a banner supporting abortion in a church.

The prosecutor’s office in the city of Toruń charged Scheuring-Wielgus with ‘offending religious feelings’ and ‘malicious interference with religious worship’, according to Human Rights Watch. The hearing will take place in January, with each offence – for which she has pleaded not guilty – carrying a penalty of up to two years in prison.

In another worrying development, Polish freedom fighters seem to have lost an ally due to recent changes in the Ombudsman’s Office, the supposedly neutral body appointed to investigate complaints made against public officials.

The ombudsman, Marcin Wiącek, has dismissed his deputy, Hanna Machińska, who was known for protecting the rights of refugees on the Polish-Belarusian border and for intervening on behalf of protesters detained during pro-abortion and pro-LGBTIQ rights’ protests. Machińska will be replaced with Wojciech Brzozowski, a specialist in religious law.

Meanwhile, the EU waits for Poland to meet the milestones its commission set for releasing the Cohesion and Covid Recovery Funds, now frozen due to severe breaches of the rule of law and fundamental rights.

But MEPs have expressed concern that the commission’s criteria was not enough – and urged the EU council not to release the funds until Poland has fully complied with EU law. Lempart agrees, believing the EU’s approach emboldens the Law and Justice party.

She explained: “The milestones are not in compliance with the EU Court of Justice rulings, so the EU is breaking its own laws.

“It sends a clear message that they don’t care about the rule of law in Poland, and there is now an attempt to fast-track cases against protesters before these new changes are implemented.”

We must ask ourselves – is this the Europe we want to live in, where rights are negotiable, where women are forced through pregnancy, and rights defenders are dragged to court by fundamentalist governments? 

But hope remains, and with Polish parliamentary elections coming up next year, people have a chance to push for positive change. Support for liberalising abortion laws has risen from 37% in 2016 to 70% in 2022, while support for same-sex marriage has risen from 18% to 52% over the same time period. 

“Moderate conservatism has been hijacked but the Law and Justice party is destroying itself,” said Lempart. “People saw the violence we faced. There has been a huge wave of support from people who don’t want to be part of the anti-women and anti-LGBT+ campaigns. They are too dogmatic, there must be a middle ground. People are moving more towards love and not hate.”

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