Riot police were deployed in Poland on Wednesday as people went on strike and gathered in the street for a seventh consecutive day to protest a top court ruling that bans abortions in cases of fetal abnormalities.
Military gendarmes were ordered to monitor crowds as tens of thousands of people gathered in defiance of pandemic restrictions. They vented their frustration about the abortion ruling and more broadly at perceived restrictions on their freedoms under the right-wing ruling party, Law and Justice.
Protesters in Warsaw marched from the office of Ordo Iuris — a conservative group that has pushed for a full abortion ban — to the parliament building, which was surrounded by police officers in riot gear. Large crowds also filled the streets in other major cities, including Krakow, Wroclaw, Szczecin and Lodz.
Protests against last week's ruling spread to other countries too. People gathered at Polish embassies in Stockholm, Lisbon and Rome in solidarity with Polish women.
The mainly Catholic country already had one of Europe's most restrictive abortion laws. The ruling that declared it unconstitutional to terminate pregnancies for congenital defects amounts to a near-total ban.
The deployment of the military and riot police has sparked alarm for NGOs who accuse law enforcement of using excessive force against peaceful protesters.
The nationwide strike and protests -- largely organized by Women's Strike, a women's rights initiative -- come amid a deepening standoff between angry demonstrators and Poland's deeply conservative government, which pushed for last Thursday's court ruling and has vowed not to back down.
'You are criminal'
Opinion polls show a majority of Poles oppose the constitutional court's ruling and the protesters have even found support from unexpected groups, including farmers and miners.
Another opinion poll on Wednesday showed falling support for the Law and Justice party.
Poland's most powerful politician, ruling party leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski said in the past that pregnancies involving even fetuses that are badly damaged and have no chance of survival outside the womb should "still end up in a birth, so that the child can be baptised, buried, have a name".
He lashed out at opposition lawmakers in parliament, accusing them from the podium of inciting people to protest during the pandemic.
"You are destroying Poland," Kaczynski told them. "You are exposing a lot of people to death, you are criminal."
On Tuesday evening, he called on his party's supporters to defend churches "at any cost."
He spoke to a camera backed by Polish flags in an announcement that some critics compared to a notorious announcement of martial law in 1981 by communist leader Wojciech Jaruzelski to crackdown on anti-regime protests.
Some saw Kaczynski's words as an incitement to violence. The 71-year-old also holds the job of deputy prime minister in charge of police and security services.
'I am furious'
Daily protests since Poland's constitutional court issued its decision have exposed deep divisions in this central European nation of 38 million, long a bastion of conservative Catholicism and now undergoing a rapid social transformation.
"I am so furious! They have no right to decide about my life, about my personal decisions, about my future," Julka Wojciechowska, 19, a student protesting in Warsaw, said. "They don't understand young people. They don't understand the world now, but they are trying to regulate our lives. We will never allow that."
On Sunday, women entered Polish churches to disrupt masses, confronted priests with obscenities and spray-painted church buildings, while members of some far-right groups and soccer fans surrounded churches to defend them, in some cases provoking skirmishes with protesters and police.
Szymon Holownia, the founder of a new centrist political movement, said that Kaczynski, "in the name of defending the church wants to set fire to the country and drown it in blood".
The conservative rulers have sought to depict the huge crowds of mostly young people led by women's rights activists as "fascists."
"Left-wing fascism is destroying Poland," read a Tuesday headline on state TV, echoing language that US President Donald Trump has also used.
'Tear gas, pepper spray and physical assault'
Interior Minister Mariusz Kaminski on Wednesday vowed "decisive action" by the police "in the face of further attempts of similar acts of aggression and desecration announced by the leaders and organisers of the protests".
He said 76 people have been detained in connection with the protests at churches, and prosecutors are carrying out proceedings in 101 cases.
People have been taking to the streets in massive numbers even as the coronavirus spreads fast, with a record 18,820 new cases and 236 new deaths over the past day.
CIVICUS and the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF) said in a statement on Wednesday that the protesters are "being met with excessive force and violence from law enforcement officials and far-right groups" with authorities using "tear gas, pepper spray and physical assault".
They also described the use of the military as "worrying".
" It is unacceptable that the Polish government is using COVID-19 as a pretence to repress peaceful protests," the two NGOs continued, arguing that the military's deployment could escalate tensions.
"We also call on EU leaders to condemn attacks and violence perpetrated by the authorities and non-state actors," they said.