‘You will not lock all of us up!’: Protesters in Poland denounce arrests of LGBT activists

Thousands of LGBT rights supporters demonstrate in central Warsaw, Poland against the detaining of a transgender activist on August 8, 2020.
Thousands of LGBT rights supporters demonstrate in central Warsaw, Poland against the detaining of a transgender activist on August 8, 2020. © Janek Skarzynski, AFP

Demonstrators turned out in Warsaw and other Polish cities Saturday to protest anti-LGBT attitudes promoted by the government as well as the detention of pro-LGBT rights protesters.


“You will not lock all of us up!” people chanted at a protest in Warsaw that drew thousands of mostly young people, most wearing masks for protection from the coronavirus. Similar protests took place in Krakow, Lublin, Wroclaw and other places.

The protests came a day after LGBT rights supporters and police scuffled in Warsaw after the arrest of transgender activist Malgorzata Szutowicz, better known as Margot. Police said they detained nearly 50 people, with several activists accusing police of using rough tactics.  

“The police were aggressively pushing the protesters out of the way, knocking people to the ground and holding them down with their boots,” the Campaign Against Homophobia, a Warsaw-based rights group, said in an online statement.

After Margot was arrested in the neighbourhood of the rights group’s offices, an AFP photographer saw dozens of protesters blocking the police car carrying her. Scuffles then broke out between activists and dozens of police officers, who eventually cleared the way for the car to pass.

Warsaw police said on Twitter that 48 people were arrested in connection with "insults directed at police as well as damage to a police car".               

Intensifying stand-off

The protests come amid an intensifying standoff in Poland between people who support LGBT rights and the conservative government, which has declared it a dangerous “ideology”. President Andrzej Duda, who was sworn in for a second term on Thursday, won re-election on an anti-LGBT platform. He has also compared what he called the “LGBT ideology” to Communism.   

Some critics accuse the governing Law and Justice Party of stoking social tensions to channel attention and anger away from what they say are plans to further erode the rule of law.

Last week the justice ministry said it is preparing legislation that would require NGOs to declare any foreign funding sources, echoing laws passed in Russia and Hungary that critics say are meant to hamstring rights groups and others that are critical of the authorities.  

In late July, the EU criticised and moved to deny funding to six Polish municipalities that declared themselves “LGBT-free zones” or used the term “pro-family rights”, a more subtle way of expressing anti-gay sentiment in Poland.

The EU move came after approximately 100 municipal councils in Poland had adopted “LGBT-free” resolutions as of late June.

Poland and Hungary convinced the EU earlier this month to water down a proposal to tie the bloc’s €750 billion Covid-19 stimulus package to what France’s minister for European affairs, Clément Beaune, called the “basic rules of democracy, free media and equal rights”.

Beaune had expressed alarm at recent developments in Poland and Hungary.

Pre-trial detention

Margot was put in pre-trial detention for two months on Friday for acts of civil disobedience, including using a knife to cut the tires of a van belonging to a pro-life foundation that broadcasts anti-LGBT messages – including a claim that homosexuals “are preparing society to accept pedophilia”.

Police allege she also used violence against the driver of the van, shaking and pushing him.

Margot belongs to a group called Stop Bzdurom (Stop the Nonsense), which has been draping rainbow flags on Warsaw statues, including one of Jesus, infuriating the conservative government.

Some others sympathetic to the LGBT movement also say the stunt with the statues was offensive and counter-productive. Warsaw Mayor Rafal Trzaskowski, Duda's challenger in the recent presidential election, called it "an unnecessary provocation”.

Those defending Margot say the legal measures being used against her – as well as the detention of dozens of others on Friday night – are disproportionate. Lawyers have not had contact with her since her arrest, her defense lawyer said in comments to AP.

Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro defended the Warsaw police’s behaviour as appropriate. He accused opposition politicians defending the LGBT protesters of supporting “banditry”.

“Perhaps the knife that was used to destroy the van back then will be used for a bigger crime next time,” Ziobro told AP.

However, Poland’s Commissioner for Human Rights, Adam Bodnar, issued a statement on Saturday expressing his “major distress and concern” at police actions against the protesters in Warsaw.

Citing his responsibility “for protecting fundamental human and civil rights and freedoms, in particular against violations of rights by public authorities”, Bodnar opened a preliminary investigation into the events, stating that media recordings from the scene and public witness statements – including from Polish members of parliament – “indicate that the conduct of police officers requires urgent examination”.

Among the subjects of inquiry were the reasons behind “the detention of a large number of persons” and the “use of coercive measures against the protesters”. 

Bodnar also said that representatives from the National Prevention Mechanism Against Torture, an organisation that seeks to prevent “inhuman or degrading treatment”, would be visiting police stations to seek information on the treatment and conditions of the detainees.

In a subsequent statement on Saturday, Bodnar’s office said that representatives who spoke with 33 detainees found evidence of police brutality and that they were denied contact with lawyers.

Dunja Mijatovic, the human rights commissioner for the Council of Europe, the continent’s top human rights body, called for Margot’s immediate release on Saturday.

Mijatovic tweeted that the activist was detained "for blocking an anti-LGBT hate van and putting rainbow flags on Warsaw monuments", saying that an order for Margot's two-month detention sends a "very chilling signal" for freedom of speech and LGBT rights in Poland.

‘Tremendous solidarity’

LGBT rights activist Magdalena Dropek said she was kneeling in front of her TV on Friday night, transfixed by the media coverage of the conflict between protesters and police in Warsaw.

“It was unbelievable for me what was happening,” she told FRANCE 24.

The 37-year-old activist, who sits on the board of the Equality.org.pl Foundation, cut short a weekend trip to return to her home in Krakow and participate in a Saturday night “solidarity walk” to express support for Margot and the detained protesters.

For her, Friday’s events in Warsaw were a result of the anti-LGBT rhetoric coming from the top.

“In the last year, we saw this violence in the Equality marches, in the Polish streets,” she said. “Now we see it from the state.”

“It starts with the words and it ends with the violence,” she said.

Marek Szolc, a Warsaw city council member who coordinated efforts Friday night to get legal aid for the detainees, described the police actions as “an outrageous violation of human rights”.

“It was a peaceful blockade,” Szolc, 28, told FRANCE 24, referring to the protesters who tried to halt the police car with Margot inside. “The police attacked the demonstrators.”

“Emotionally, I’m shocked, disappointed. But at the same time, I think there is tremendous solidarity among the LGBT community right now,” he said.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP and AP)

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