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More cases of police abuse against protesters. HFHR intervenes with Chief Commissioner of the Police

♦ The Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights has written to the Chief Commissioner of the Police in connection with the incidents that occurred on 20 and 28 January 2021 during protests of the National Women’s Strike.

♦ According to press accounts, the police have cordoned off and used chemical agents on some protesters who were taking part in the peaceful assembly. Multiple arrests have been made.

♦ In its letter to the Chief Commissioner, the Foundation points out that the police actions might violate the prohibition of torture, inhuman or degrading treatment and that the use of chemical agents contributed to an increased risk of Coronavirus infections during the protest.

The Foundation has addressed two protests. The first one, taking place on Wednesday 20 January 2021, was a combined protest of the National Women’s Strike and anti-fascist groups held under the slogan “Against the police state”. The protest began around 6 pm at the de Gaulle Roundabout in Warsaw. The second protest took place on 28 January 2021 in Warsaw (and 26 other Polish cities). It was the second one in a string of protests erupting after the publication of the statement of grounds to the so-called “judgement” of the Constitutional Court on abortion in cases of severe foetal abnormalities.

HFHR: police action likely violated the prohibition of torture, inhuman and degrading treatment and freedom of assembly

In its letter to the Chief Commissioner of the Police, the Foundation emphasised the guarantees enshrined in Articles 3 and 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights and pointed out that, whenever a decision is taken to disband a public assembly, police response must be proportionate to the threat posed by the assembly and the use of chemical agents such as tear gas or pepper spray must be evaluated in terms of necessity, proportionality and rationality, in particular when these measures are used against assembly participants who do not manifest aggressive behaviour.  These requirements are particularly relevant not only in the light of Convention’s Article 11 but also in relation to the above-mentioned safeguards under Article 3 of the Convention. As the European Court of Human Rights has noted, recourse to physical force by the police, which has not been made strictly necessary by a given person’s conduct diminishes human dignity and is an infringement of the right outlined in Article 3 of the Convention. Moreover, the application of physical force does not, in principle, lead to a de-escalation of tension, in particular when the use of force by non-uniformed officers does not evoke any reaction of other police officers present on the scene and blocking a possible escape route.

The Foundation also noted that the use of chemical agents against protesters may increase the risk of COVID-19 infections and increase the severity of the disease in infected persons. Referring to an opinion of the Omega Foundation, the HFHR underlined that the use of irritating chemicals during a pandemic may entail an increased risk of causing unintentional harm.

In the view of the HFHR, possible abuses on the part of the Police which involved, among other things, peaceful protesters having been pepper-sprayed from a short distance for no apparent reason during a pandemic, as well as the unwarranted use of physical force and direct coercive measures by non-uniformed officers against peaceful protesters and the refusal to disclose the identity of the intervening officers may lead to the conclusion that the actions taken by the Police were contrary to the European Convention on Human Rights. Consequently, the HFHR asked the Chief Commissioner of the Police to address the described situation and inform whether the officers responsible for the violations will be held accountable.

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