Freedom of Assembly in danger

– Communist Poland is back ! – shouted the opposition MPs when an amendment to the law on assembly was proceeded by Polish Parliament on 2 December 2016.

Although the ruling Law and Justice party (PiS) argued that the new legislation in no way restricts civil rights, the act clearly provides the government with the tools to block demonstrations by organizing their own events instead.

Freedom of assembly which, according to the Constitution, is one of the civil liberties has been severely curtailed by the ruling party. “Cyclical rallies” have gained priority over any other event which could be planned on the same day. This new term was coined to refer to demonstrations which are held regularly in the same place or along the same route, at least four times a year, and in the case of national holidays – at least once a year. Not surprisingly, such criteria are met only by the Smoleńsk celebrations held every 10th day of the month to commemorate the presidential plane crash, and the March of Independence organized annually in Warsaw by the nationalist groups on 11 November. Once such events are approved and registered by the local governor (who is a government nominee), no other organization or group will be able to hold a demonstration at the same place and time. In its initial version, the bill envisaged that the government and public authorities as well as church and religious organizations should have priority over any other groups or organizations wishing to hold their demonstrations at the same place and time. Quite unexpectedly, this provision was questioned by the Senate which proposed its amendments to the bill cancelling the above provision. Finally, the Parliament voted a bill which allows a group to “book” cyclical demonstrations to be held for three subsequent years at the same place. If the President signs the bill, no other group will be allowed to spontaneously organize any events in the same venue. Additionally, the distance between two demonstrations will have to be at least 100 m.

The above provisions actually breach the freedom of assembly giving a government appointed governor the right to give permission for a rally to be held. So far, demonstrations had to be registered with the City Hall but no permission was required.

Before its adoption, the law was officially regarded as unconstitutional by Adam Bodnar, Commissioner for Human Rights while the Supreme Court in its opinion said that the bill had all the features of a “State of Emergency Act” and was an attempt to violate the constitutional order. Neither of these opinions was published on parliamentary official websites.

The provision saying that the governor issues permission to hold a “cyclical rally” and assesses the goal of such a rally has been considered by the Supreme Court as violating not only the constitutional guarantee of freedom of assembly but also the international laws which Poland is obliged to respect.

„Having analysed the bill, we have no doubt that the actual intention of the law is to seriously restrict freedom of assembly,” says the Supreme Court in its opinion.

The bill was also criticized by the Council of Europe, Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe and 158 NGOs, including Amnesty International Poland and the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights. The NGOs appealed to the President to exercise his right to veto the bill.

This law, like many others, was passed very quickly, without public consultations. The new bill was not supported by any arguments explaining why the previous law should be amended. It is now awaiting presidential signature to become a binding act.

*This article has been updated on 13 December 2016

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