WARSAW – Ignoring the threat of prosecution and the dangers posed by a wave of coronavirus cases, tens of thousands of women outraged by a court ruling banning almost all abortions in Poland gathered in Warsaw on Friday, intensifying the largest demonstrations in the country. the fall of communism in 1989
Crowds of women flooded the streets of the capital with a musical mix that included Darth Vader’s theme of Star Wars in government jingle, and techno music that thundered through the speakers. Many of the women wore red lightning, which became the emblematic image of the movement, adorned with their clothes as police and military security surrounded them during the march.
Friday’s protests were the culmination of a week of large-scale demonstrations, with police estimating that 430,000 people attended more than 400 demonstrations in the country on Wednesday.
While the protests were overwhelmingly peaceful, Friday’s march led to a large police presence on the streets of Warsaw amid fears that violence could break out with right-wing activists.
In an interview with the Polish news portal Onet, Bartosz Bekier, leader of the far-right Falanga group, estimated that several thousand nationalists would go to the protests, noting that they were “trained in combat tactics”.
Police said Friday that some “hooligans” attacked protesters throwing missiles at them, prompting officials to intervene with force. According to them, about a dozen people have been arrested. There were many other reports in the local media about clashes between nationalists and protesters.
Protests of this magnitude have not been observed in the country since the solidarity movement in the 1980s, which led to the collapse of the communist government, according to analysts, a measure of dissatisfaction felt by many Poles over the Supreme Court’s decision on October 22 to ban abortion.
For many protesters this week, the abortion ban is in line with what they see as a model of policies that repel basic human rights.
“I’m here because my sense of helplessness has reached its peak,” said Anna Rabchuk, a graphic designer who is present with her boyfriend and holds a banner reading “People before embryos.” She added: “I feel insignificant, I feel less and less like a Pole and I really feel sorry for that.”
She said the decision to have an abortion was part of a wider erosion of individual freedoms, which she said came as part of the European Union.
The court ruling suspended the termination of the pregnancy due to severe fetal abnormalities, which is virtually the only type of abortion currently performed in Poland. Abortions of pregnancies as a result of rape and those that endanger women’s lives are still officially legal.
In a deeply religious country – where 33 million of the 38 million citizens are registered as Roman Catholics – anger at the clergy is one of the most striking aspects of the protests.
“I have a lot of hatred for the church,” said Zuza Rava, who was protesting downtown. A baptized Catholic, she said she no longer felt part of an institution in dire need of reform.
“I’m terrified and that’s the main reason I’m here,” Ms. Rava said. “I do not want to see my country in such a state.”
The ruling party used the attacks on the church to gather its own supporters. And some nationalist extremists took advantage of the moment to form a self-proclaimed “national guard.”
Young men dressed in black and armed with pepper spray – many with shaved heads – have become a night presence in front of churches and cathedrals. They clashed with protesters and reported a number of scandals near churches in Warsaw and elsewhere. Two reporters from the nation’s largest daily, Gazeta Wyborca, said they had been attacked.
The mass gatherings took place despite an increase in coronavirus cases in Poland, with more than 20,000 new infections now reported daily and hospitals struggling to cope with the influx of patients.
Speaking to the country on Friday morning from the construction of a hospital on the territory of the National Stadium on the Vistula River in Warsaw, Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki tried to draw attention to the pandemic and called on people to stay at home.
“Let your anger focus on me, on the politicians, let it touch me, but not those who can touch in two weeks,” he said. “Protesting ladies and gentlemen, you will contact elderly people on the bus, at home or during a meeting. This can have dramatic consequences. “
But many viewed his pleas with skepticism, with critics suggesting the abortion decision was designed to distract the public from the government’s inability to prepare for the wave of infection that has infected the country.
The fact that the virus has done little to deter crowds has highlighted the depth of divisions that have torn the country apart since the Law and Justice Party gained control of the government in 2015, fostering a vision for a nation that must “rise from your knees. “
At the time, migrants were at the center of the party’s most vitriolic rhetoric. But as the issue died down, the party threw gay people as an existential threat to the nation, prompting dozens of settlements to pass legislation declaring their regions free of “LGBT ideology.”
The decision on abortion cannot be appealed by the Polish Supreme Court, but as the opinion has not yet been published, it is not yet technically legally binding.
President Andrzej Duda, who was diagnosed with coronavirus last week and is still recovering, suggested on Friday that he was open to some form of compromise.
After consulting with women and experts, he said he would submit a “proposal for change” to Parliament.
But the government’s effective leader, Deputy Prime Minister Jaroslav Kaczynski, who heads the Law and Justice Party, is taking an increasingly challenging and often confrontational stance.
Mr Kaczynski said this week that the aim of the protests was “to destroy Poland and end the history of the Polish nation”, in what critics described as a call for action by his right-wing supporters.
Following Mr Kaczynski’s denunciation of politicians who support the protests as “criminals”, the Ministry of Justice sent a notice to prosecutors across the country, ordering them to target the organizers of “illegal gatherings” to endanger public health during the pandemic.
At the same time, Education and Science Minister Przemyslaw Charnek threatened to cut funding for universities believed to facilitate or encourage the protesters.
After some universities canceled classes to allow students to attend rallies earlier in the week, the minister said their behavior was “scandalous”.
“Young people are in a period of rebellion. We experienced that as well, “he told state television, TVP. “The difference is that we are brought up in the spirit of authority. The teachers were authorities. We need to get back to that. “
Anatoly Magdjartz reports from Warsaw and Mark Santora from London. Monica Prontsuk contributed with reports from Brussels.