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On freedom’s side. 25 years of the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights in Poland

On the occasion of the 25th Anniversary of the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights, we would like to invite you to read our jubilee publication, “On freedom’s side”.

In the early 1990s, one of the first offices of the Foundation was located in a barrack at Piękna street. “This was a tin hut, a leftover from a construction site”, remembers Danuta Przywara, President of the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights. “The main feature of the hut was creaking. Everything inside it creaked! We had rooms of some kind, but the walls were paper-thin and you could hear everything, water slushing in the toilet or people talking in adjacent rooms”, laughs Irena Rzeplińska, who launched the Legal Assistance Programme for Refugees and Migrants back in 1992.

Several years later, the Foundation’s office moved to an address in Bracka street. “Bracka was the crucial period between the craziness of the barrack and the more orderly business done from our present office at Zgoda street”, says Elżbieta Kowalewska, Head of HFHR Secretariat.

Those were the times of the first Dalai Lama’s visit to Poland organised by the Foundation, HFHR’s experts working on the new Constitution and laws governing operations of secret services, and also the starting point of countless educational actions. Over the last 25 years Foundation’s experts have been leading educational programmes in nearly 20 countries, including Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Tunisia, Tajikistan and Libya.

Since its inception, the HFHR has also provided legal services and legal aid. In the last 25 years, almost 100,000 people have sent letters to the HFHR, asking for help in personal matters. In 1999 Professor Andrzej Rzepliński launched the “Innocence” Law Clinic; in 2004, Dr Adam Bodnar initiated the operations of the Strategic Litigation Programme involved in human rights strategic litigation.

“As far as strategic litigation is concerned, you need to have a general awareness of social problems and legal problems, related to those social problems that exist within the jurisdiction in Poland, and you need to select cases that may be used to resolve such problems. What matters is the effect, or obtaining a court judgment that will improve the practice of human rights protection”, Dr Adam Bodnar says.

In 2001 the HFHR organised the first International Film Festival WATCH DOCS. Human Rights in Film. WATCH DOCS is a festival that is about films but also about discussion on human rights. “Over the 14th editions of the festival we have had truly great people involved in our panel discussions, let me just remind you the wonderful Tadeusz Mazowiecki, who talked about his experiences from his mission to the Balkans”, says Maciej Nowicki, Executive (Program) Director of WATCH DOCS. During the last 14 years, WATCH DOCS has attracted an audience of nearly 70,000 people.

Anna Sańczuk collected and wrote about these facts and many more.

Danuta Przywara says: “This story is our tribute to all employees who have given a piece of their own lives to the Foundation, all experts whose knowledge and advice we have used, all volunteers who have given us their time, all our friends who have reassured us and also to everyone who has kept their fingers crossed for us even if they sometimes disagree with us.”


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