Polish women’s rights groups were bracing for a violent response from far-right ultranationalists on Friday, as they prepared for the largest pro-choice demonstrations yet against a controversial court ruling severely restricting abortions.
Poland has faced a wave of angry protests since an October 22 court ruling found that abortion in the case of severe foetal defects was unconstitutional, removing the most common of the few existing grounds for legal termination in the predominantly Catholic country.
Those demonstrations, some of which have targeted Catholic churches, have been met with a brutal response by ultranationalist groups, many of whose members are drawn from the violent football hooligan scene. During nationwide protests on Wednesday, members of the ultranationalist All-Polish Youth attacked women demonstrating in Wroclaw, Poznan, and Bialystok.
As the All-Polish Youth announced plans for further counter-demonstrations in the city of Lublin Friday, the leader of another far-right group issued a call on social media for supporters to mobilise against a huge pro-choice protest planned in Warsaw.
“The aggressive left is making an invasion of the capital,” said Robert Bąkiewicz, the leader of a group whose members roughed up women protesting at a Warsaw church on Sunday.
“Churches and monuments are likely to be destroyed again. They cannot be allowed to do so, so I am asking for mobilisation,” he added.
Rights groups told VICE News they feared further violence from the far-right Friday, as ultranationalists grew increasingly emboldened by encouragement from governing politicians, and the failure of police to rein them in.
“There are concerns of further attacks by nationalist groups on protesters tonight,” said Draginja Nadazdin, director of Amnesty Poland. “The police must facilitate those wishing to protest peacefully in support of women, including by safeguarding protesters against harassment and violent attacks by counter-demonstrators.”
Agata Maciejewska, spokesperson for Polish feminist organization Dziewuchy Dziewuchom (“Girls for Girls”), told VICE News that she expected trouble from the far-right.
“It is clear that they can feel stronger today than ever, with a sense of impunity to vent their aggression,” she said. “All we can do is stay in a tight formation, take care of each other and call for help in any case of provocation.”
Like many people in Poland, including the head of the opposition, Maciejewska blamed the country’s most powerful politician, Jarosław Kaczyński, for inciting the far-right violence against protesters.
On Tuesday, in the wake of the clashes at churches, Kaczyński released a widely-viewed video message denouncing the protests as anti-religious "nihilism” and calling on supporters to rally behind the church.
"We must defend Polish churches, we must defend them at every price," said Kaczyński, the leader of the ruling conservative Law and Justice party.
The remarks drew a furious response from the leader of the opposition Civic Coalition party, Borys Budka, who said Kaczyński had stoked hatred and sown division; the following day, women protesters were attacked by far-right groups in three cities.
Maciejewska called Kaczyński’s remarks “scandalous” and a “call for civil war”.
“There is no doubt that President Kaczyński’s speech was an invitation to attack the protesters,” she said. “The president gave his consent to attack demonstrations, which triggered not only nationalists, but all kinds of fighters.”
Rafał Pankowski, an associate professor at Warsaw university Collegium Civitas and an expert on the Polish far-right, said he was concerned about the growing threat of further violence, as fascist groups announced the formation of new street-level units to “defend” churches amid the abortion debate.
“They are ostensibly formed to ‘defend the faith,’ but it's apparent they wish to dominate the streets and intimidate opponents,” he told VICE News.
“Importantly, they have drawn support from the ranks of far-right football hooligans who physically attacked protesters in many places across Poland in recent days.”
He said the controversy over the abortion issue had only exacerbated the widening divide between liberal and conservative Poles under the ruling nationalist Law and Justice party, intensifying a culture war that had already been waged over immigration and LGBTQ rights.
“The social polarisation in Poland has reached a critical point, and the far-right groups feel emboldened as self-proclaimed defenders of Catholic identity,” he said. “They appear to be… fired up.”
Friday’s march in Warsaw is being held in defiance of a ban on public gatherings amid a surge in the spread of coronavirus, which hit a record of more than 20,000 new cases and 301 deaths Thursday. Prosecutors have threatened criminal charges against protest organisers for creating an “epidemiological threat.”
But women’s groups counter that they had warned the government that there would be a massive backlash if the court pushed through the ruling. Those planning to take to the streets say they are undeterred by the threat of charges or far-right violence.
“What is happening now is a revolution,” Aleksandra Hirszfeld, founder of feminist group Entuzjastki, told VICE News. “There is no turning back.”