I sat in the courthouse in Warsaw with baited breath, as the judge called for a recess of 10 minutes before delivering his verdict.
We waited. Everyone was a mixture of hope and nerves. Arriving back in the courtroom, the judge began to speak. I don’t speak Polish so I couldn’t really understand. Other than his voice, there is not a sound, as though everyone was holding their breath.
I arrived in the Polish capital a few days ago, thinking that I would be attending one of several hearings in the case against 14 women who stood up to fascism in Poland in 2017. But now it seems this will be the most important hearing of them all: the hearing that decides if they are guilty of interfering with a lawful assembly, simply for protesting against hate. It is almost a year to the day since I first met this group of courageous women. They talked me patiently through the details of the unforgettable November evening when they took a stance against fascism.
It was 11 November 2017 at the Independence Day march in Warsaw. For some years now this annual event, organised to mark Poland’s independence, had been tainted by the presence of some nationalist groups advocating “Europe will be white or deserted,” displaying racist and fascist symbols, while marching holding flares and throwing firecrackers on the streets of Warsaw. In 2017, these women decided it was time to act.
As they unfurled a banner reading “Fascism Stop,” their peaceful protest against hate caused fury among the marchers. Video footage shows people reacting by kicking, spitting and screaming at them. They were called “sluts,” “lefty scoundrels” and “whores.” They were pushed, jostled, grabbed by the neck and dragged onto the pavement, suffering bruises and cuts. One of the women lost consciousness after being dropped on the ground and needed medical help.
The authorities initially closed the investigation into the attacks with an absurd justification. But after the women appealed in February 2019, a judge ordered the investigation into the violence to be re-opened. However, adding insult to injury, the women were themselves charged with obstructing a lawful assembly and fined. And so their battle for justice began. This fight was not only for themselves, but for the hundreds - if not thousands - of protesters who have faced a similar fate after denouncing human rights violations at rallies across Poland.
Nearly two years later, here we are at this courthouse in Warsaw. At 1pm, some of the women appeared in front of the judge. Then two witnesses were called: a police officer and a steward of the march. In their words, I recognised details of the night in question; the aggression the women faced, the kicks, the insults, the police arriving only after being called by the women themselves; ambulances giving aid to one of them after she lost consciousness, the women trying to denounce the violence against them and instead ending up as the accused.
I looked at the women and I saw a mix of courage and nervousness on their faces. But who wouldn’t feel the same? We all wondered how this case will finish. As their defence lawyer gave his closing speech, I remembered him telling me almost a year ago: ‘I cannot believe that in Warsaw, a city that was raised to the ground during the  Warsaw Uprising by fascists, there will be a time when fascists will march in the city centre and someone will be found guilty for trying to stop them.’
One by one the women stood up, said their full names and stated proudly that they wanted to be found ‘not guilty.’ Kinga, the last of them to speak, explained bluntly and movingly what compelled her to stand against hate on that night: ‘My grandfather was wounded in the battle of ’39. My mother went to the Uprising. My stepfather was in the home army in Kielce. My grandmother worked in a hospital. They are now dead and I am happy because I would not like them to see what is happening today.’
As the judgement was announced, I couldn’t follow but I kept my fingers crossed (as if that would make any difference but I was not sure what else to do in that moment). And suddenly I heard relieved sighs around the room. I turn to my colleague asking “what did he say?” and she confirmed: “They are not guilty! They are not guilty!”
The judge upheld their rights to freedom of expression and freedom of assembly and, significantly, he told the women, “You were right.” As he finished, the room burst into a round of applause in celebration.
My emotions were bubbling up! I, like many others, have always been inspired by the determination of these women who never gave up. It took two years of fighting charges they should never have faced for a judge to finally understand the importance of standing for what’s right. On this day, justice was delivered not only for 14 women, but for all the protesters who have, in recent years, faced similar charges and punishments for standing up for their rights.
The hundreds of thousands of letters, signatures and appeals sent to the Polish authorities by Amnesty activists from around the world also helped, as well as the hundreds of solidarity messages giving the women strength to continue fighting!
This case started with injustice but has finished with justice, and a message that fascism and hatred will not be tolerated in Poland.
- Catrinel Motoc is Amnesty International's senior campaigner on shrinking space and on human rights defenders at risk
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