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Poland: Escalating Threats to Women Activists

Investigate, Protect Rights Defenders, End Hateful Rhetoric

Protesters hold a banner of Strajk Kobiet (Women's Strike) during a protest in Warsaw on March 8,  International Women's Day, organized by the Women's Strike (Strajk Kobiet) against the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party and the decision of the Constitutional Court. © 2021 Attila Husejnow / SOPA Images / Sipa USA.

(Berlin) – Bomb and death threats targeting at least seven groups in Poland for supporting women’s rights and the right to abortion are disturbing reminders of escalating risks to women’s human rights defenders in the country, Human Rights Watch, CIVICUS, and International Planned Parenthood Federation-European Network (IPPF-EN) said today.

The authorities should urgently investigate, protect the women targeted and hold those responsible for the threats accountable. Polish officials should also counter abusive misinformation campaigns targeting activists.

“The increasingly hostile and even violent environment for women’s rights and their defenders in Poland should ring alarm bells for Polish authorities and European Union leaders,” said Hillary Margolis, senior women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Women’s rights defenders should be able to express themselves publicly, including when they oppose government policy, without having targets on their backs.”

Human Rights Watch, IPPF-EN, and CIVICUS collected information between March 15 and March 26 from seven organizations in Poland that have been threatened due to their work for or perceived support of women’s rights issues, including Abortion Dream Team, Federation for Women and Family Planning (Federa), Feminoteka, FundacjaFOR, Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights, Women’s Rights Centre (Centrum Praw Kobiet), and All-Poland Women’s Strike (Ogólnopolski Strajk Kobiet).

At least six human rights organizations in Warsaw, including the women’s rights groups Feminoteka, Women’s Rights Centre and Women’s Strike, received bomb threats via email on International Women’s Day, March 8, 2021. The threats said they were “payback” for supporting the Women’s Strike movement, which has been at the forefront of mass protests following increased restrictions on access to legal abortion. Some organizations received the threat at multiple email addresses.

Federa, a reproductive rights group, received bomb threats via email on March 12 and March 23. Members of the Women’s Strike and the Consultative Council (Rada Konsultacyjna), an independent body of groups established to develop legal and policy measures to address Women’s Strike protesters’ demands, received further bomb threats via email on March 20 and March 23. The March 20 threats targeted a performance on that day by an artistic collective in central Warsaw at Szklany Dom (Glass House), near the residence of Deputy Prime Minister and leader of the ruling Law and Justice party (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość, PiS) Jarosław Kaczyński. The performance proceeded following checks of the building by police.

Warsaw city council member Dorota Łoboda, a member of the opposition Civic Coalition and active supporter of women’s rights and the Women’s Strike movement, also received bomb and death threats. The district prosecutor’s office is reportedly pursuing an investigation into threats against Łoboda.

Staff members at Feminoteka, Federa, Women’s Rights Centre, Women’s Strike, FundacjaFOR, Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights, and Grupa Stonewall reported bomb threats received between March 8 and March 23 to police, who checked the premises of their offices and found no evidence of explosive devices. However, some said that the police minimized the security risks and made no commitment to open and pursue a full investigation. Only one person who had reported threats had been told by the police after she inquired that they sent the file to the prosecutor, but she received no information about whether the prosecutor would pursue the investigation. 

These escalating threats come amid ongoing public protests led by the Women’s Strike movement following an October 2020 ruling by Poland’s politically compromised Constitutional Tribunal that virtually eliminates access to legal abortion. The ruling officially took effect after publication in the national Journal of Laws in January.

Activists said their sense of insecurity is heightened by government rhetoric and media campaigns aiming to discredit them and their work, which foster misinformation and hate that can put their safety at risk.

“I feel like I am not safe here and that they [the government] make choices about who deserves protection and respect,” said a Federa staff member. “For me this is very serious, because it is not just some freaks who send us a message [saying] ‘you are a murderer.’ It is in the whole context of what is going on in Poland, where what we are doing is really perceived as something evil.”

Several women’s rights defenders have been detained or face what they claim are politically motivated criminal charges, including for allegedly praising vandalism of churches, obstructing religious services, and creating an “epidemiological threat” for protests held during the Covid-19 pandemic.

“Instead of stoking anger against those trying to uphold basic rights, Polish officials should focus on doing everything in their power to protect women and women’s rights, including the rights to peaceful assembly and free expression, to access safe and legal abortion, and to be protected from violence,” said Aarti Narsee, Civic Space researcher at CIVICUS. 

Police should thoroughly investigate threats of violence against women’s rights and other human rights defenders and punish those responsible, the organizations said. They should work with those targeted to put in place security measures to ensure women’s rights defenders can continue their work without fear of violence or reprisals. Prosecutors should drop any politically motivated and baseless charges against activists. Officials should counter public campaigns aimed at spreading misinformation about and generating hatred toward women’s and human rights groups.

People demonstrate in a protest organized by Women Strike against restrictions on abortion law on International Women's Day,  March 8, 2021, in Krakow, Poland. © 2021 Beata Zawrzel/NurPhoto via AP.

European Commission officials should press Polish authorities to investigate threats and hold those responsible to account, and guarantee the right to peaceful protest without fear of reprisals or violence. The European Commission should also press Polish government officials to refrain from using hostile rhetoric against women’s rights activists and other critics of government policies.

“This is simply another indication of how far the rule of law has fallen in Poland, and the impact that has on basic freedoms for everyone,” said Irene Donadio, senior lead on strategy and partnership, IPPF-European Network. “Allowing Poland to continue flagrantly disregarding and undermining these rights without consequence is dangerous not only for women and girls in Poland, but throughout Europe.”

For more information on the escalating threats to women in Poland, see below.

Human Rights Watch, IPPF-EN, and CIVICUS collected information from organizations and activists affected by bomb and death threats since the October 2020 Constitutional Tribunal Ruling. This included video or telephone interviews between March 15 and March 23, 2021, with nine staff members of six organizations and e-mail exchanges with three people, including staff members of two additional groups. Human Rights Watch obtained copies of e-mailed threats received by three of the organizations. Human Rights Watch wrote to the Polish government on March 24 with the findings and a request for an official response. The government has not responded.

Background

On October 22, Poland’s politically-compromised Constitutional Tribunal issued a ruling that further curbed legal access to abortion in Poland, which already had one of Europe’s most restrictive abortion laws. The decision declared that abortion on grounds of “severe and irreversible fetal defect or incurable illness that threatens the fetus’ life” is unconstitutional, eliminating one of the few legal grounds for abortion in Poland. Mass protests, led by the Women’s Strike movement, began immediately following the ruling.

Even when abortion is legal, multiple barriers limit access, including widespread invocation of conscientious objection, which permits medical providers to refuse care based on personal or religious belief. Laws restricting or criminalizing abortion do not completely eliminate it, but drive women and girls to seek abortion through means that may put their lives and health at risk.

Since coming to power in 2015, the ruling Law and Justice party has repeatedly attempted to further curb sexual and reproductive health and rights, including through a bill that would have enacted a total abortion ban, which was met by mass public protests. Poland’s government has also blocked efforts to provide comprehensive sexuality education and threatened to withdraw from the Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence, known as the Istanbul Convention.

Under Law and Justice, Poland’s government has targeted women’s rights organizations and activists, including through smear campaigns and systematic defunding. A crusade against so-called “gender ideology” has been used to galvanize support for measures that target the rights of women and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people.

The Law and Justice government has undermined the Constitutional Tribunal’s independence and its effectiveness as a check on the executive. The Council of Europe’s legal advisory body, the Venice Commission, and the European Commission have criticized the Polish government’s interference with the Constitutional Tribunal. In 2017, the European Commission initiated proceedings against Poland that could lead to the suspension of membership rights under Article 7(1) of the Treaty on European Union due to breaches of rule of law, including concerns related to the lack of an independent and legitimate constitutional review.

Independent media have been curtailed under Law and Justice’s leadership. A December 2020 report by the International Press Institute found that “five years of policies aimed at destabilizing and weakening independent media has taken a debilitating toll on media freedom and pluralism.”

Earlier in March, the Law and Justice party confirmed Bartłomiej Wróblewski as its candidate for Ombudsperson, the independent office for monitoring human rights. Wróblewski was responsible for submitting the application to the Constitutional Tribunal for a review of the abortion law that resulted in more restrictive measures.

Threats against Women’s Rights Defenders

Following bomb threats earlier in March, Federa staff members and the Women’s Strike co-founder Marta Lempart received emails on March 23, each with an image of her face edited to show a bloody bullet hole in her forehead and blood pooled at the photo’s edges; in the corner appears to be an infant’s hand holding a figure of Jesus on the cross. The accompanying text says that the bomb threat on March 20 targeting an artistic performance at Szklany Dom was “a test of police vigilance” and that the senders will continue to “terrorize” the recipients by planting a bomb.

These and other death threats have targeted those supporting access to legal abortion and include subject lines such as “Do you support abortion? Wait, you are about to die!” Six women staff members at Federa and at least two affiliated with Women’s Strike each received emails on March 4 containing an image of a rifle target overlaid on a photo of their face with the word “DIE” underneath and message text reading, “You have 5 days left.” Other messages appear to threaten activists’ families, including their children, if they do not “withdraw support for abortion.” Some state the recipients will die if they continue to support the Women’s Strike. Messages often come from email addresses with names comprised of anti-choice slogans.

Police Response to Threats

At least seven groups, including Feminoteka, FEDERA, Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights, Women’s Rights Centre, and Women’s Strike, reported bomb threats to police between March 8 and March 23, in some cases multiple times. Members of least four groups filed official criminal complaints with police about bomb or other death threats received since March 4.

Those interviewed said that, although police arrived quickly following notification of bomb threats, in some cases police officers minimized the security risk or indicated it was unlikely that prosecutors would pursue the case, leaving them with little confidence that there would be a full investigation.

Staff members from at least three organizations were called to police stations for interviews regarding the threats. Aleksandra Magryta, head of the Great Coalition for Equality and Choice under Federa, submitted the emailed threats to police electronically, including a death threat with a rifle target on her face and a bomb threat, but the police officer who took her statement said it was unlikely the prosecutor would take action because “we need evidence and the emails are not eligible as evidence because we don’t know who sent the email.”

Magryta first approached police in Warsaw, where the organization’s office is located, but they said she had to go to the police station in the small town where she lives outside the city, where she was later interviewed. She said the police there did not indicate that they would coordinate with police in Warsaw.

A staff member from the Women’s Rights Center in Warsaw said that, when responding to the March 8 bomb threat at their office, a police officer said the situation was a “low priority.” “[He] really discouraged us from taking any kind of action because he said this is not really serious, because it was a mass emailing [to multiple organizations],” she said. She noted that they had provided the emails as well as IP addresses to police. “So I think if [the police] really wanted to do something, it would be very easy,” she said.

Activists contrasted this with strong police response against women’s rights defenders in other cases, including during peaceful protests. On International Women’s Day, police pepper sprayed, detained, frisked, and “kettled” protesters for hours. Kettling is a tactic that restricts protesters’ movements to a particular area. Police have previously detained, kettled and used excessive force against protesters and Women’s Strike activists, sometimes taking detainees to police stations dozens of kilometres away from where they were arrested.

“For many months the Polish Government has been waging a campaign against people who are on strike or who support the women's strike,” wrote Joanna Piotrowska of the women’s rights group Feminoteka by email. “It has misinformed the public in the public media and the police have reacted in an inappropriate and violent manner toward those on strike, mainly women.”

Detainees have included the Women’s Strike co-founder Klementyna Suchanow. Lempart, the other co-founder, faces up to eight years in prison on charges including praising destruction of churches and endangering the life and health of the public by organizing protests during the Covid-19 pandemic. Lempart has said the charges are a form of intimidation and political pressure.

Three women activists were charged in November with “offending religious beliefs” for posting images of the Virgin Mary with a rainbow halo symbolizing support for LGBT rights. A court acquitted them on March 2, finding their intent was not to offend but rather to condemn anti-LGBT actions.

Lack of Trust in the Police

People interviewed expressed their deep mistrust in police following poor treatment of women’s rights defenders and protesters since protests began in October as well as historical inaction by police to threats against defenders of women’s and other human rights.

Lempart said she had a friend contact police about the bomb threat on March 20 because, as a Women’s Strike leader, “I knew that they [police] wouldn’t help me or they would drag their feet.” Police responded and Lempart’s friend filed a complaint on behalf of Women’s Strike, including information about the IP address from which the threat was sent. However, Lempart said, “I think pressure is needed [on authorities] because if there is no pressure there will be no investigation.”

A leader of a reproductive rights organization described multiple instances in which she said police did not demonstrate respect for her rights or those of other activists. She said police defended anti-choice protesters trying to prevent her colleague from participating in a public demonstration against the Constitutional Tribunal ruling.

“[The police] were saying ‘You cannot participate here because you are not welcome here,’ because they [pro-government protesters] said so,” she said. “So we kind of realized… that police are not really going to protect us and protect the people who peacefully demonstrate.”

Almost all of the women’s rights defenders interviewed said they do not believe the police will pursue an investigation or take action against those responsible for threats against them. For some, this is more worrying than the threats themselves. “The situation is serious because of the inaction of the police, because it will encourage people [who are] maybe more radical,” said a staff member of an organization assisting women survivors of violence. “Or [those sending threats] will be able to paralyze our work because it will happen again and again, and they will go unpunished for these acts.”

Even if the threats prove empty, she said, they disturb the organization’s work: “We must treat it seriously because we have clients in our office, we have volunteers, we are there – we can’t really say, oh, okay, another email [threat], let’s just keep working.”

Smear Campaigns and Targeting by Politicians

Those who oppose women’s right to reproductive autonomy, including the right to choose and access to legal and safe abortion, as well as those who oppose LGBT equality, often use false sensationalist claims and rhetoric to provoke strong emotions against activists who defend and promote these human rights. This has long been the case in Poland, and activists interviewed said such public campaigns have increased since the Constitutional Tribunal ruling.

In one case, in October, an anti-choice group co-opted a magazine cover featuring the founders of Abortion Dream Team, which works to combat stigma and misinformation about abortion in Poland, labelling them “Abortion Killing Team” and using the image alongside that of a dead infant on billboards and on a truck that drove around Warsaw. In March, the  anti-choice group Shield of Life reported Abortion Dream Team to the regional prosecutor’s office in Gdansk for allegedly persuading women online to have abortions and committing “genocide.”

Billboards opposing abortion and divorce, mostly erected since February, line Poland’s streets. Some use an image of a baby inside a heart-shaped “uterus” or a baby’s face alongside slogans implying the baby could be subject to abortion. Others say, “Love each other mom and dad,” written in handwriting resembling that of a child, in what women’s rights defenders said feeds into efforts to discourage divorce.

Of particular concern in Poland is that such malign messaging, which overwhelms public spaces, reflects wider efforts by government and its allied groups to push an extreme agenda that can have dangerous consequences for women, particularly those in vulnerable situations. “It might seem like it is nothing, but it is part of a broader campaign against divorces and so on, neglecting the fact that when there’s violence [in the home] you should get separated for your own safety,” said a staff member at an organization providing assistance to women survivors of violence.

This is particularly concerning amidst politicians’ and government leaders’ efforts to withdraw from the Istanbul Convention, and public statements minimizing the problem of domestic abuse in Poland, the organizations said.

Activists said they feel that people who oppose their activities are emboldened by government rhetoric, including via public media, that openly targets them and their work. The public service television station TVP, which has become state-controlled under Law and Justice and is widely known as a government propaganda machine, frequently refers to protesters as “supporters of killing unborn children” and issues “news”  reports smearing the Women’s Strike and its leaders.

“The state-owned TV talks about [us] killing children rather than [about] abortion or interrupting pregnancies,” said a Federa staff member. “So no wonder we are called murderers.”

In response to protests following the Constitutional Tribunal ruling, the Law and Justice leader Jarosław Kaczyński, who was  recently appointed deputy prime minister, called protesters “dangerous” and said the Polish people should “defend everything that may destroy us.” He condemned protesters having entered churches, saying, “This attack is an attack intended to destroy Poland” and that “we must defend [churches] at any cost.” Opposition leaders and activists said such speech incited hatred against protesters and the pro-choice movement.

In November, Education Minister Przemysław Czarnek, threatened to cut public funding to universities that permitted students and faculty to participate in Women’s Strike protests if it meant they would not attend class.

In May 2020, the Ministry of Justice awarded a medal for “merit in the field of justice” to an anti-choice activist who prevented a 17-year-old girl from taking medication to induce an abortion by reporting her intentions to her parents and harassing her online when she saw the girl post about it in an online chat room.

High-level politicians, including President Andrzej Duda, often invoke the need to protect “traditional families” in their efforts to dismiss the Istanbul Convention and deny LGBT equality. Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro, who initiated preparations in July 2020 for withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention, which binds the government to standards on combating violence against women, has lambasted the convention as a “feminist creation” that promotes so-called “gender ideology.”

Threats received by at least three women’s rights organizations echoed politicians’ rhetoric, accusing the women of destroying “traditional family values” or endangering the church.

A bomb threat received on March 23 by Lempart and staff members of Federa, reads in part, “We must defend the Church at all costs…. [W]e will do everything in our power to prevent the destruction of the country, of traditional family values. You will not succeed in destroying the Polish nation, you leftist scum.” Each message is accompanied by a photo of the person’s face manipulated to show a bullet hole in the forehead, blood spatters, and what appears to be an infant’s hand holding a black cross.

Climate of Fear and Intimidation

Some of those targeted said the threats have affected their sense of security and capacity to work. One staff member at Federa said the threats have taken significant time away from her work and said that she no longer feels safe at the office.

She attributed her fear not only to the threats, but to the climate for women’s rights defenders and what she said is complicity of officials in fomenting hostility toward them. “It is not one incident – it is a series of events that show how the party in power has divided our society, [a party with] a very clear worldview that sends hateful messages to us,” she said.

A member of the Women’s Strike Consultative Council, which includes hundreds of activists, academics, and leaders of non-governmental organizations, said she has received nine threats by email since February 18 and that they seem different from others she received in the past. “Every time I check my e-mail inbox and see another threat, I feel more and more afraid and overwhelmed,” she wrote in an emailed response. “The most frightening are the bomb threats – I feel like my life is really in danger.” She said it takes a mental and physical toll: “I feel broken. It is harder for me to concentrate on my job. I am only 20 years old and I face death threats practically every day.”

She said she reported two threats to the police, who responded and took her statement, but three weeks later police would only tell her that the case is pending and she feels they are not addressing it with urgency.

Lempart said the threats are becoming more targeted, moving from general threats to a bomb threat on a specific day, and then a bomb threat targeting the artistic performance at a particular location and time. “It is kind of like they are closing in on us,” she said. “I think something might happen… And if something happens we will all have the feeling that we saw it coming.”

People interviewed repeatedly remarked on possible parallels with the murder of the Gdansk Mayor Pawel Adamowicz, a liberal politician stabbed to death in January 2019. Adamowicz, a Law and Justice opponent, was regularly criticized in the media for supporting LGBT people and migrants. The nationalist organization All-Polish Youth published a “death certificate” for Adamowicz in January 2019. Women’s rights defenders said politicians’ speech fed into threats against Adamowicz, but the threats were not taken seriously.

Istanbul Convention

In July 2020, Justice Minister Ziobro announced he would pursue Poland’s withdrawal from a landmark European convention on violence against women, the Istanbul Convention, and Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki referred the convention to the Constitutional Tribunal for review due to its definition of “gender.”

A citizens’ initiative bill entitled “Yes to family, no to gender,” backed by the far-right Ordo Iuris Institute for Legal Culture and the Christian Social Congress, had its first reading in the lower house of parliament, the Sejm, on March 17.  On March 30, the Sejm voted to send the bill to committee for further work rather than to reject the bill or send it immediately to a second reading. The bill will now go to parliamentary committees on justice, human rights and foreign affairs.

To replace the Istanbul Convention, and with support from right-wing and religious groups, Poland’s government is pushing a so-called “Family Rights” Convention both nationally and regionally. It would enshrine, for example, the protection of “the life of a conceived child” and the definition of marriage as being between a man and a woman.

Service providers supporting women victims of violence warned that withdrawal from the convention could further threaten their already scarce public funding, deter police from responding to domestic and other violence against women, and imply that such violence is not a serious concern in Poland. They said that this is another part of broader strategy to undermine women’s rights and women’s rights defenders.

Recommendations

The police should thoroughly investigate threats of violence against organizations and activists and punish those responsible. European Commission officials should actively push Polish authorities to ensure such an investigation and accountability.

Government officials and public media should refrain from using speech attacking women’s rights activists and protesters, falsely accusing them of criminal acts, or calling on people to obstruct peaceful protests and support nationalist movements, which can contribute to inciting violence against women’s rights and other human rights defenders. They should counter public disinformation campaigns and speech that may generate hatred toward women’s and human rights groups. Prosecutors should drop any politically motivated and baseless charges against women’s rights defenders and protesters.

The government should also uphold rights to freedom of assembly and expression. It should put in place measures to protect women’s and other human rights defenders and ensure they are able to conduct their work safely.

Poland’s government should ensure reproductive rights are upheld in accordance with international law. This includes the right to access safe abortion. Moves to further curb access to safe abortion are retrogressive and incompatible with the government’s obligations under international law and put the lives and health of women and girls at risk.

The government should take steps to combat violence against women and girls in line with its obligations under international law to uphold the rights to life, health, freedom from cruel and inhuman treatment, and non-discrimination.

European Commission officials should press Polish authorities to uphold the right to peaceful protest without fear of reprisals or violence and to refrain from using hostile rhetoric against women’s rights and other human rights defenders.

The European Commission and EU member states should urgently address breaches of the rule of law and their impact on women’s rights, including reproductive rights, and on human rights defenders in Poland, including through expanding and advancing scrutiny under Article 7 proceedings and conditioning access to EU funds to respect for the rule of law and the EU’s democratic values.

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