Poland: court orders investigation into police torture of anarchists

CW: torture, police brutality

A court in Warsaw heard an appeal against the prosecutor’s decision to discontinue the investigation regarding two police officers suspected of abuse of power, mistreatment and inhuman treatment of three anarchists following their arrest in May 2016. The court ruled that the case, previously dropped twice by the prosecution, must be investigated.

The Warsaw Three arrest took place on 23rd May 2016, during their attempt to set two police cars on fire. They were caught red-handed by numerous police forces, including anti-terrorists. The day after, the police called a press conference, during which they informed of the arrest of a “three individuals involved in the anarchist movement” and accused them of “possession of explosives and preparing an attack on a police station”. Moreover, the cops claimed that the surveillance of the anarchist movement is a long term project and that the arrests were a result of “operational information” gathered. That “operational information” has never been disclosed, despite of enquiries from the defendants’ legal team.

Conveniently, the arrest and the press conference took place during the government introduction of a new anti-terrorism legislation. The controversial law was described by the Amnesty International as “violating the rights to liberty, privacy, expression, association, peaceful assembly, and non-discrimination”.

After the police press conference, the media rather dramatically reported that the act of the three anarchists is “the beginning of terror”, and a general media shitstorm begun, with reports on “anarchist terrorists” who tried to blow up a police station hitting the headlines. This atmosphere was further fuelled by the prosecution claiming that they intend to charge the three with possession of explosives and endangering human life: the crimes for which they could face up to ten years imprisonment. In result, the Warsaw Three were detained awaiting trial for four months. Classified as “dangerous”, they were placed in solitary confinement, with their correspondence and contact with loved ones severely limited. They were escorted to court to hear the bad news by heavily armed, masked anti-terrorist squad.

Following the arrests, the prosecutor maintained that the anarchists must be kept in custody due to the seriousness of charges. It took six months and several expert opinions to conclude that what actually happened in May 2016 was merely three people attempting to set some cop cars on fire with gasoline, and not an act of terror. The Warsaw three were finally charged with attempted vandalism, for which in June 2017 they were sentenced to three months in prison, two years of community service of 30 hours a month, and 300 Polish Złoty (approx £60) fine each. They were also eligible to pay the court costs.

Torture during detention

While the media were focusing on the Warsaw’s three act itself, little attention was given to the circumstances of their arrest and detention. Beating, pepper spraying, threatening with dogs, repeated electric shock were just some of the activities the police engaged in. During the first court hearing, one of the arrestees appeared with his face savagely beaten, or ‘massacred’, as described by witnesses.

The arrested anarchists did not make a formal complaint during their detention, however, they gave their account on the day of their first trial and following their release. The Wawa3 support group, which organised a solidarity campaign with the detainees, published several statements at their website in which the three described their experience.

This is how one of them remembers his arrest:

“(…) one of them [the cops] leaned over and sprayed gas into my eyes, shouting “You cunt”. I was beaten on the face. I tried to protect my head. Then another policeman pressed me to the ground with his knee, held my head against the ground with one hand and beat me with the other. (…) A person subjected to electric shock screams in a very particular way, quickly reaching a certain frequency, and stays on it. You can’t do anything about it, it’s a reflex. So I screamed and I heard the others scream that same way. The police didn’t like us making so much noise, so they took me to the van. I lay on the floor, handcuffed and he [a police officer] hit me with a teaser or a stun gun around the heart and then the crotch (…) He covered my mouth with his hand so that I couldn’t scream. He promised to me that if anything happens to any of the officers, they will find a way so we don’t get out of it alive. (…)

Another reported:

“Crouching beside one of the cars in the police parking lot, I heard a noise and a patter of heavy shoes. I got up and after a few seconds I was knocked down by five, maybe six policemen (…). I was kicked and beaten all over my body. My pockets were searched and my hands were clasped with plastic clamps on my back. I was asked questions: “Who told you to do this?”, “What is in the containers?”. I didn’t answer any of the questions, which resulted in even heavier beatings. At one point, police said that kicking the crotch, beating with a torch in the face, and hitting the ribs would not be enough. They used a two-pin stun gun. I was hit with it around the thighs, back and crotch – while they were still asking the same questions. After a while, I was lifted and kicked at the coccyx, a few meters away I was knocked down again. They brought a German Shepherd dog who, when I wasn’t moving, didn’t pay any attention to me. I was told what would happen next. If I won’t answer the questions I am asked, I will be treated again to the stun gun, which will cause the dog to attack me because I will shake lying on the ground. That is exactly what happened next. The dog was wearing a muzzle, but it tried to bite through it to get to my face. My throat had contracted from the shock of the stun gun and I started to choke. Policemen joked that I was probably on drugs, which is why I was making such strange sounds when breathing. After a while, I was moved to a car, where I was kicked again, this time for no reason.

After being transported to the police station, several people (I write people because I do not know if they were policemen, they had balaclavas, there were no inscriptions on their clothes) began the interrogation, I was lying on the floor, bound, in bloodied clothes. I was beaten, I was struck with a stun gun and I was strangled while being asked questions, questions not related to detention at all. They were questions about the anarchist movement. I think it lasted over an hour. “

After the first interrogations and the release of the anarchists’ statements, the prosecutor’s office decided to initiate an investigation into the violation of powers by the police. This investigation was quickly dropped, but two out of three defendants decided to appeal the prosecutor’s decision. During the hearing in January 2017, the Warsaw Three lawyer pointed out the shortcomings related to discontinuation of the investigation into police abuse of powers, such as not bothering to hear the injuried parties before deciding to drop the case. The court eventually ruled that the investigation into police misconduct must be continued. Despite this, the investigation was quickly dropped again. This triggered another round of court appeals, which was finalized last week. The court, again, ordered the prosecutor to conduct investigation into this gross police misconduct.

Few bad apples?… Not really

This case is by no means an exception. Complains regarding police use of violence or tortures in Poland are common among activists, NGO members and everyday citizens.

The most well known example of police violence was the case of Igor Stachowiak from Wroclaw, Western Poland. Stachowiak was a young man mistakenly arrested in 2017. His crime: he was coming back from a party at early hours of a day, looking like he is not sober.  He looked alike a wanted drug dealer, which is what got him arrested. Stachowiak tragically died at a police station in result of torture with a teaser and strangling. He died half-naked laying at the police bathroom floor while being subjected to electric shocks: something the police later described as “an interrogation”.

Another high-profile case concerns David Winiarski, a student arrested during an anti-government protest in Warsaw in 2018. Following his arrest, he was beaten and temporarily “disappeared”, with the police refusing to disclose his whereabouts to his mother, forcing her to look for him across Warsaw’s hospital network. Luckily, Winiarski was found alive, but badly beaten.

Since 2014, Polish citizens reported 1400 crimes committed by police officers after arrest. The reported cases largely concern torture, inhuman treatment and both physical and psychological violence. The police is apparently aware of this situation. According to a survey conducted by Polish Ministry of Internal Affairs and Administration, 45% of Polish coppers admitted that, while on duty, they were “participants of a situation which, in eyes of a witness from outside of the police force, could be understood as unreasonable aggression.”

In Poland, despite criticism from the Human Rights Ombudsman, The Helsinki Committee for Human Rights, as well as the UN Committee against Torture and the UN Human Rights Committee, the criminal code does not penalize torture.

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Image: Solidarity graffiti with the Warsaw Three, source: Revbel

Sources: Anarchistyczny Czarny Krzyż (Anarchist Black Cross), Wawa3, oko.press