The Polish police detained 48 people last night in Warsaw, after they had been protesting in solidarity with the jailed LGBT activist Margot.
By Claudia Ciobanu
Under the hot Saturday midday sun, flanked by a few friends, Ewa Tomaszewicz is pacing around on a patch of grass outside the police station on Jagiellonska street in Warsaw’s Prague district, taking phone calls and trying to figure out what is happening with her partner, Gosia R, who has been detained inside the building since Friday night.
The last time Ewa heard directly from Gosia was around 10pm that night as she was being driven to the police station in the police van after which she had her phone confiscated. “She was brave, as always, even if, of course, scared,” Ewa tells BIRN. Since then, the only contact she has had is via Gosia’s lawyer, who has been allowed inside the station.
Gosia is one of over 48 people detained by the Warsaw police on Friday night while taking part in a solidarity action with LGBT activist Margot S., who was put on temporary arrest for two months on charges of vandalising a van belonging to a pro-right to life foundation with homophobic slogans and attacking its driver in June.
Late Friday afternoon, people gathered outside the headquarters of the NGO ‘Campaign against Homophobia’ in central Warsaw to accompany Margot during her imminent arrest. Margot is being pursued on two separate charges, one related to allegedly vandalising the van in June and another for insulting religious feelings and monuments by hanging rainbow flags on various Warsaw statues in July. The two-month temporary arrest sentence, which is final, is for the first charge; she is facing a maximum five years in prison if eventually convicted.
While Margot did come out of the Campaign against Homophobia HQ with her hands out and repeatedly offered to be handcuffed, the police initially avoided detaining her. Seeing this, together with her supporters, Margot started marching to Krakowskie Przedmiescie, the main Warsaw street where one of the most controversial rainbow flags had been hung on a statue of Jesus Christ.
It was here, on the crowded street, that the police did eventually arrest Margot, just after 7pm on Friday evening. Margot’s allies attempted to block the police car in an act of civil disobedience against the severity of her prison sentence. This apparently was taken by police as a reason to start arresting people.
“During the arrest, mobs formed on Krakowskie Przedmiescie, and some of the participants ended up attacking private property, represented by the police van (among others, they jumped on the roof and the front of the van), as well as attacking and insulting police officers,” the Warsaw police said in a statement on Saturday.
But accounts by participants involved in the solidarity action posted on social media, backed by video, allege police randomly picked up people from the crowds marching peacefully down the street, while the force that was used by the police to restrain some of the protestors appears to have caused injuries.
Ewa Tomaszewicz claims Gosia was arrested while simply standing around talking to people. The two women host an amateur radio show and Gosia was hoping to record some vox pops, having arrived at Krakowskie Przedmiescie around 9pm after Margot had already been detained and the situation seemed to have calmed down.
“We had just got back from our holidays around 8:30pm and I had just returned from walking the dog when Gosia said she was going out to check what was happening,” Ewa recounts, adding that her partner called to say the situation was calm when she arrived at the centre. “Around 9:20pm, a girl called me and told me Gosia had been arrested and was in the police van.”
“She wasn’t doing anything, she was just standing and interviewing someone when suddenly the police grabbed her by the arm and took her to the van,” Ewa says.
“It even looks like they arrested her because she looked like someone who could not defend herself or try to escape,” Ewa adds, suggesting that the Friday night arrests were aimed at scaring off people who stand up for LGBT rights.
According to the police statement, charges will be pressed against the 48 arrested individuals for “taking part in a mob, with the knowledge that its participants will join forces to violently attack a person or property”. This charge carries a sentence of up to three years. Five of the arrested people will face additional charges, the police said.
The arrests on Friday night happened in at least two locations in central Warsaw, with the police taking the detainees to several police stations. The events on Friday night proved a marathon for friends and allies of the arrested to ensure that their rights were respected and they had legal representation, they told BIRN. Several parliamentarians, including a group of women members of parliament from the left-wing alliance (which had earlier this week dressed up in rainbow colours for President Andrzej Duda’s inauguration), showed up at each police station, demanding to know the identities of the arrested and ensuring each had a lawyer. In one situation, two parliamentarians physically blocked a police van from leaving the station, until they received information about the destination to which the prisoner was being taken.
“The detained were denied the constitutional right to legal representation, which every citizen has from the moment of arrest, at each stage of the proceedings,” claimed parliamentarian Anna Maria Zukowska, from the left-wing alliance Lewica, who spent most of Friday night at the police station on Wilcza street in central Warsaw. Her statement referred to the ten prisoners at the Wilcza station. The police responded by saying that everyone who asked for a lawyer got one.
However, Zukowska claimed that at the Wilcza station she was monitoring, the arrested were interrogated without legal representatives present, despite the lawyers waiting outside the police station and demanding to be allowed inside.
The parliamentarian said that on Saturday she and her colleagues were still struggling to figure out where each of the arrested individuals was detained in order to make sure each had legal representation; a couple of people were still unaccounted for and, hence, lacking legal support on Saturday midday, Zukowska said.
According to statements from the lawyers defending the detainees, most are likely to face expedited proceedings, potentially ending up in court on Monday.
Zukowska, the parliamentarian, sees the mass arrests as politically motivated. The governing conservative Law and Justice (PiS) has spent the last two years denouncing the LGBT rights movement as a threat to Polish society and actively scapegoating it to score political points.
“It is surprising to see that the police didn’t react when the person who was supposed to be arrested, Margot, did not oppose the arrest at all, but simply went to the police and offered to be detained. The police did not react then. Instead, they arrested Margot on Krakowskie Przedmiescie, so that it was more spectacular,” Zukowska told BIRN.
The parliamentarian admits that while the police were required to execute the court order to detain Margot, the manner in which the arrest was conducted was abusive.
“They threw people to the ground, they roughed them up, and some people suffered injuries,” the parliamentarian, who witnessed Friday evening’s events, said. “They deprived people of their dignity – what else does it mean to put their boots on the head of a person? Let’s remember what happened in the US where the police killed an African-American person in this way, leading to massive protests.”
Ewa, who together with Gosia, has been active in the LGBT movement for decades, says she has rarely seen this level of aggression against LGBT people in post-socialist Poland. She cites the police violence against pride march participants in Poznan in 2005 and the Bialystok pride last year as among the equally most serious cases.
“But such a level of aggression from the executive power we have not seen in the history of free Poland,” she says. “Such situations we only saw in PRL (communist Poland).”