WARSAW, Poland -- Polish police came under criticism on Thursday for using tear gas and force on mostly female and young protesters during the latest in a string of women-led protests against a top court ruling restricting abortion.
Political tensions have been extremely high in Poland since the constitutional court ruled last month to impose a near total ban on abortion. The government has yet to publish the ruling, which would enshrine it as law, because of the huge pressure from the mass street protests.
Meanwhile, a standoff with the European Union and a surge in coronavirus infections — with a record number of 637 deaths in one day recorded Thursday — as well as frustration over the government's handling of the pandemic are all contributing to a sense of deepening crisis in the country.
Also Thursday, several activists were forcefully removed by police after blocking traffic in front of the District Court in Warsaw. They had gathered there to show solidarity with an activist who was suspected of assaulting a police office at an earlier protest.
She was charged in relation to an incident in which the women-led protesters and far-right nationalists were facing off against each other, with police in the middle. Reportedly someone threw a flare at the police. But the court today decided that the woman doesn't have to remain in pre-trial detention and her lawyer says any punishment will likely not be severe.
According to reports in Polish media, plainclothes police with batons used force on some of the protesters Wednesday night.
Witnesses said that plainclothes officers entered the crowd of protesters, some with armbands identifying them as police and some without, and used truncheons to beat protesters.
TV broadcast images also showed Marta Lempart, one of the leaders of Women's Strike — the key organization beyond the protests — on the ground in pain after tear gas got in her eyes.
On Thursday, Lempart accused the police of breaking the law.
Mayor Rafal Trzaskowski, who is a liberal opponent of the nation’s conservative government, also criticized the police behavior.
“Tear gas against women? Really, Polish police?” said on Twitter. “The use of direct coercion must be justified and proportionate, it must be a last resort. I believe there was no reason to use it against women’s and youth demonstrations. There were many more policemen than protesters.”
Interior Minister Mariusz Kaminski told parliament Thursday that the police officers used force because they found themselves “under attack” from the protesters.
But Cezary Tomczyk, head of the opposition party Civic Platform's club in parliament, said that police were lying.
“These were peaceful demonstrations," Tomczyk said. "There was no reason for such brutal interventions.”
Protesters had meant to create a blockade of the parliament building Wednesday evening, but were prevented from doing so by a large contingent of police vans, forcing the demonstrators to gather elsewhere in the city.
Emotions were high on the streets and inside the parliamentary chamber.
A lawmaker who had her parliamentary pass ripped apart by police amid the protests outside confronted Poland's most powerful politician, ruling party leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski, during the parliamentary session, accusing him of causing the turmoil in the country.
Kaczynski in turn accused oppositions lawmakers of having “blood on your hands” for supporting the mass protests, which he alleged were contributing to the massive spike in coronavirus infections.
When opposition politicians chanted at Kaczynski that he deserved to be in prison, he retorted that they were the ones who belonged behind bars.