Women converge on Warsaw against abortion ban, heightening Poland's largest protests in decades

Protests of this scale have not been seen in the country since the Solidarity movement in the 1980s. PHOTO: AFP

WARSAW (NYTIMES) - Ignoring the threat of prosecution and the dangers posed by a surge of coronavirus cases, tens of thousands of women outraged by a court decision to ban nearly all abortions in Poland converged on Friday (Oct 30) in Warsaw, intensifying what have been the largest demonstrations in the country since the fall of communism in 1989.

With a musical medley that included Darth Vader's theme from Star Wars, in a poke at the government, and techno music blaring over loudspeakers, crowds of women flooded the streets of the capital. Many of the women had the red lightning bolt that has become the iconic image of the movement emblazoned on their clothes, as police and military security officers flanked them as they marched.

They were joined by thousands of men and a wide array of groups who believe that the hard-won freedoms of the post-communist era are slipping away under the rule of the increasingly autocratic Law and Justice Party.

Friday's protests were the culmination of a week of large-scale demonstrations, with the police estimating that 430,000 people attended more than 400 demonstrations around the country on Wednesday.

While the protests have been overwhelmingly peaceful, Friday's march brought a major police presence to the streets of Warsaw amid concerns that violence could break out with right-wing activists.

Mr Bartosz Bekier, head of the extreme right group Falanga, in an interview with Polish news portal Onet, estimated that several thousand nationalists would be going to the protests, noting they were "trained in combat tactics".

The police said that some "soccer hooligans" had attacked protesters by throwing flares at them, prompting officers to intervene with force. About a dozen people were arrested, they said. There were scores of other reports from local news media and the police of clashes between nationalists and demonstrators.

Protests of this scale have not been seen in the country since the Solidarity movement in the 1980s that led to the collapse of the communist government, according to analysts, a measure of the discontent felt by many Poles over the high court decision on Oct 22 to virtually ban abortion.

For many of those protesting this week, the ban on abortion fits what they see as a pattern of policies chipping away at basic human rights.

The court's decision halted pregnancy terminations for severe foetal abnormalities, effectively the only type of abortion currently performed in Poland. Abortions of pregnancies resulting from rape and those threatening the life of women are still formally legal.

In the deeply religious country - where 33 million of the 38 million citizens are registered as Roman Catholic - the anger directed at the clergy has been one of the most striking aspects of the protests.

The governing party has used the attacks on the Church to rally its own supporters. And some nationalist extremists have seized on the moment to form a self-proclaimed "national guard".

Young men clad in black and armed with pepper spray - many with shaved heads - have become a nightly presence outside churches and cathedrals. They have confronted protesters, and a number of brawls have been reported near churches in Warsaw and elsewhere.

The mass gatherings have been held despite a surge in coronavirus cases in Poland, with more than 20,000 new infections now reported daily and hospitals struggling to deal with the influx of patients.

Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, speaking to the countryon Friday morning from a hastily constructed hospital on the grounds of the National Stadium on the banks of the Vistula river in Warsaw, sought to redirect attention to the pandemic and urged people to stay home.

"Let your anger focus on me, on politicians, let it touch me but not those whom it can touch in two weeks," he said. "Protesting ladies and gentlemen, you will get in touch with elderly people on the bus, at home or during a meeting. This may result in dramatic consequences."

But many viewed his pleas with scepticism, with critics suggesting that the abortion ruling was timed to distract the public from the government's failure to prepare for the wave of infection now washing over the country.

President Andrzej Duda, who was diagnosed with coronavirus last week and is still recovering, suggested that he was open to some form of compromise. After consulting with women and experts, he submitted "a proposal of changes" to Parliament on Friday.

But the effective leader of the government, Deputy Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski, who is the head of the Law and Justice party, has struck an increasingly defiant and often confrontational pose. He said the aim of the protests was to "destroy Poland and end the history of the Polish nation", in what critics described as a call to action by his right-wing supporters.

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