Poland's freedom icon Walesa backs disabled protesters

Warsaw (AFP) –


Poland's freedom icon Lech Walesa on Monday rallied behind a group of young disabled Poles who have spent 34 days camped out at parliament demanding the right-wing government increase their meagre living allowance.

"I'll do everything in my power to help you, but I know that it's impossible to work with some of the people now in power," the 74-year-old former president and Nobel Peace laureate told protesters sitting in wheelchairs as he visited them in parliament.

Walesa, who led the Solidarity movement that brought a peaceful end to communism in Poland, is an ardent opponent of Poland's Law and Justice (PiS) government and minced no words on Monday calling it "perfidious" and slamming what he called its "divide and rule" style.

Walesa added that he "would have preferred the communists to these people (PiS) who claim to be Catholic."

The protesters, who insist they are apolitical, are demanding a new monthly benefit of 120 euros ($141) in addition to the modest state payments they currently receive.

"We must speak out about your needs and demonstrate our solidarity and wisdom. For now, we're failing you," added Walesa.

The legendary former Solidarity union leader however declined the protesters' request to join their sit-in.

Senior members of Poland's right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) government have also met with protesters but have so far failed to arrive at an agreement on their demands.

The sit-in has drawn criticism from some PiS lawmakers who argue it has been orchestrated by the liberal opposition to tarnish the government's image.

Walesa advised the protesters to seek support from "important social groups" such as "miners or postal workers", recalling the strategies he used to build momentum for Solidarity.

Iwona Hartwich, mother of one of the disabled protesters, said support rallies are planned later on Monday in several cities and that the protesters intend to write to Pope Francis to ask him to pray for their cause.

Since coming to power in 2015, the PiS government has come under heavy criticism at home and abroad over a slew of reforms that critics say erode democratic standards and the rule of law.

The European Union launched legal action against the PiS government last December over reforms that it fears will limit judicial independence.

But the PiS administration has also gained popularity among some Polish voters for its generous social spending, including a new monthly child benefit and lowered pension age, among other measures.