Article by Human Rights Watch, published on hrw.org on 25/09/2023 – accessible here.
Polish authorities have hit a new low in their assault on civil society when they arrested and charged a 48-year-old humanitarian aid worker on September 7 for helping migrants and asylum seekers stranded at the Poland-Belarus border as a result of unlawful, and often violent, pushbacks by both countries.
Ewa, the humanitarian aid worker, is charged with heading a criminal group organizing illegal border crossings to Poland – a crime that bears a maximum of 10 years in prison. While criminal prosecutions of humanitarian aid workers in Poland are not uncommon, Ewa’s is the first in which a judge ordered pre-trial detention, a decision her lawyers are currently appealing.
Beyond Ewa’s detention, the public utterances by Zbigniew Ziobro, who serves as both Minister of Justice and General Prosecutor, are particularly troubling. Polish law enables the Minister of Justice arbitrarily to interfere with judicial appointments, in violation of EU law and fair trial rights including the presumption of innocence. Ziobro has a track record of using his office to interfere with judicial processes, and in this case has made public statements alluding to Ewa’s guilt. The defense meanwhile is precluded by law from commenting on the case during proceedings.
Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party has repeatedly undermined the independence of the courts and disciplined judges who criticize judicial overhauls – interferences with the rule of law that have been ruled unlawful by the Court of Justice of the EU and the European Court of Human Rights.
Ewa’s arrest comes just around the release of Agnieszka Holland’s movie, “The Green Border,” which depicts abuses and unlawful returns of migrants and asylum seekers from Poland to Belarus. Government ministers and officials responded to the film with an avalanche of vitriol, including Ziobro, who called Holland a “supporter of Russian propaganda” who shows the Poles “as bandits and murderers,” and referred to the movie as “Nazi propaganda.”
Pushbacks violate international law by denying access to asylum procedures and due process, and Polish courts have on several occasions ruled pushbacks at the Belarus border unlawful. Nonetheless, a Polish border guard commander in May 2022 admitted to Human Rights Watch that his staff engage in pushbacks.
Instead of prosecuting and criminalizing those who bring aid to people stranded and suffering because of unlawful policies and practices, Poland’s government would do better to respect its obligations under international refugee and EU law and provide people the opportunity to seek asylum. The European Commission should call on Poland to immediately stop criminalizing civil society.