By Obywatele RP
In 2015 the Law and Justice (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość) Party came to power in Poland and gradually started to undermine independence of courts, and to threaten freedom of speech and assembly. Since 2017, Obywatele RP (meaning Citizens of Poland) civic movement has been defending with success the right of citizens of Poland to protest in public space against crawling autocracy and rising radical movements, also by implementing civil disobedience strategies.
One of Obywatele RP’s most successful project is ObyPomoc, a network of legal support provided by a group of pro bono attorneys. This, together with active self-defence and the organization of mutual help gave Obywatele the tools to successfully defend protesters in courts, with a 98% rate of cases won. See report HERE.
ObyPomoc monitors more than 200 on-going court proceedings involving nearly 700 protesters. Obywatele RP not only supports others, but they also organised hundreds of peaceful pickets and protests across the country themselves (documented at the webpage – in Polish, and on the YouTube channel). Obywatele RP is the only organised group in Poland that stands firm against marches of radical, racists, xenophobic and antisemitic groups organised more and more often in different places around Poland. It is also often exposed to acts of physical aggression on one side from nationalist groups and on the other side subject to police repression for “deranging” the legal assemblies. Therefore, Obywatele RP is a factor of change, whistleblowing the society and sparking discussions on how freedom of speech is overused by radical groups. In 2016, a new law on the freedom of assembly was introduced which in practice blocked any opportunity for legal counterdemonstrations against selected class of government-accepted assemblies. Obywatele RP defended citizens’ right to protest by ignoring this ban and organising numerous assemblies tgoing against the new, unconstitutional law and making it in practice ineffective. Obywatele RP also challenged the new law aiming at limiting the freedom of opinion on historical issues (the so called “IPN law”), which attempted to penalise the statements on the involvement of Polish citizens in antisemitic or anti-Ukrainian crimes in the past. Obywatele RP organised twice self-incrimination actions (in Warsaw and in Lublin), by reading in public the statements on the historically documented cases of such involvement and reporting themselves to the prosecutor’s office.
The prosecutor’s proceedings were discontinued. The “IPN law” has been modified and is not used at present. In general, Obywatele RP’s actions helped establishing a settled case law, in which the distributed control of constitutionality is being exercised by Polish judges dealing with protests. According to this case law, protests are to be judged in the light of Polish Constitution, instead of legislation of an inferior level. Obywatele RP organised active support to the Supreme Court of Poland, helping to successfully defend its independence, while also contributing to put pressure on EU Court of Justice to engage in defending the rule of law in Poland (action EuropoNieOdpuszczaj). In large part thanks to the determined actions of Obywatele RP, the anti-government protests in public space have not been pacified in Poland yet.
As a think-tank arguing for change, Obywatele RP brought forward the idea of a new democratic toolbox, by installing the primaries as a democratic way to select the list of candidates to parliamentary elections, or public hearings of candidates during the selection process. It also constantly puts pressures on prodemocratic parties for reforming the system that would bring back trust in democratic rule among citizens, their increased participation in politics and a more transparent democracy.
Obywatele RP story is an inspiratory example of a self-organising civil society facing a populist regime willing to suppress the critical voices in the society at the same time operating in a situation where democratic institutions have been in an overwhelming majority overtaken by the ruling party and citizens have become the last resort for the defense against a monoparty and non-democratic system.