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EU must take 'urgent' steps over Poland's human rights violations, says NGO

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Marta Lempart, a key leader of the Polish Women's Strike, in Warsaw, Poland on Jan.28.2021.
Marta Lempart, a key leader of the Polish Women's Strike, in Warsaw, Poland on Jan.28.2021.   -   Copyright  AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski
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CIVICUS, an NGO tracking civic freedoms, has put Poland on its human rights watchlist citing repression of protests, a crackdown on LGBTQI+ rights and attacks on independent media.

The organisation called on Thursday on the Europen Union to take "urgent and immediate action to address fundamental rights violations".

Up to now, CIVICUS had Poland on its "narrowed" list which includes 40 countries in which it estimates that democratic freedoms, such as the freedoms of expression, peaceful assembly and association, are increasingly being violated.

The rating is applied to other European countries including Bulgaria, Croatia, France, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain and the UK.

The watchlist, however, includes just five countries: Azerbaijan, Hungary, Niger, the Philippines and the USA.

The NGO said that the decline of civic space in Poland has been observed since the ultra-conservative Law and Justice Pary (PiS) rose to power in 2015.

Since then, the government has passed over 15 laws and reforms undermining judicial independence and the rule of law, it said. These laws, including one that allows for the government to discipline judges opposed to the reforms and another that lowered the age of retirement for Supreme Court judges, have drawn the ire of the European Union.

The Commission has triggered Article 7 proceedings — dubbed the "nuclear" clause because it allows for punitive measures — against Poland over the suspected violation of the EU's values.

CIVICUS also flagged a crackdown on women's rights with access to abortion restricted further in October 2020 when the Constitutional Tribunal ruled that abortion in cases of foetal abnormalities are unconstitutional in effect imposing a near-total ban on abortion. The ban came into effect last month.

Protests against the ban, which the government branded illegal because of restrictions on public gatherings imposed to combat the COVID-19 pandemic, have been met with a heavy response from the authorities.

A human rights lawyer representing demonstrators previously told Euronews that law enforcement used "excessive force" including physical violence and tear gas.

According to CIVICUS, at least 150 people have been detained with nearly half of them being driven to police stations as far as 70 kilometres outside of the capital and some being denied access to legal representation, subjected to strip searches or physical violence during detention.

Marta Lempart, the co-founder of the Polish Women’s Strike (StrajkKobiet), who was recently charged for her role in the ongoing protests, said in a statement released by CIVICUS that "it has been over five years on the streets for us since the state first tried to change the abortion law in 2016."

"The state’s attempts to intimidate protesters and organisers isn’t new. But this time around, the scale of harassment and the tactics used by the government have escalated. We are now talking about criminal charges and activists being detained and harassed in ways that are a threat to their livelihoods and families," she added.

CIVICUS also said that "LGBTQI+ people have continuously faced persecution." It cited municipalities who declared themselves "LGBT free", activists facing criminal charges for "offending religious feelings" by hanging rainbow flags of taking part in LGBTQI+ protests and a draft bill that aims to ban peacefully assemblies that promote "sexual orientations other than heterosexuality".

Leaders of PiS increasingly cast LGBTIQ people as a threat to traditional families over the past two years and ahead of the country's presidential election held in the summer of 2020. Andrzej Duda, who was re-elected, has described LGBT "ideology" as more dangerous than communism.

Brussels has taken some steps against this by refusing grants to six Polish "LGBT free" municipalities It has also unveiled a strategy to achieve LGBTIQ equality which would extend the list of EU crimes to include hate crime and hate speech targeted at LGBTIQ people.

Finally, CIVICUS warned that media independence is under threat in Poland with the government pushing for an advertising tax which threatens press freedom. It also flagged that Polska press, one of the country’s largest media publishers, was recently acquired by a company whose CEO has close relations to the PiS party leader.

"The decline of civic space in Poland must be seen within the context of PiS government’s monopolisation of the judiciary, and the ongoing rule of law crisis which has led to members of the ruling elite occupying positions of power in state institutions," Aarti Narsee, CIVICUS's Europe Civic Space Researcher, said

"The European Union must take urgent and immediate action to address fundamental rights violations," she added.