Large protests in Poland as leader vows to stifle opposition


WARSAW, Poland (AP) — Thousands of anti-government protesters marched Tuesday from the former Communist party headquarters in Warsaw to the offices of Poland’s current ruling party, a symbolic route chosen to underline the charge that the government is destroying democracy.

The march, held under the slogan “Stop the Devastation of Poland,” marked the 35th anniversary of martial law being declared by the communist regime in 1981 to crush the Solidarity democracy movement.

It was organized by the Committee for the Defense of Democracy, or KOD, a civic rights group that arose in reaction to the policies of the ruling Law and Justice party.

The populist party with a conservative streak has moved quickly since winning control of the government last year to solidify its power by weakening the judiciary and assuming more influence over state media, among other steps. The European Union and the United States have criticized the moves.

“I don’t like the way things are going in Poland,” said Joanna Grabowska, a 63-year-old taking part in the march as others around her whistled and waved Polish and European Union flags. “I am terrified that democracy and freedom of expression are being taken from us.”

Members of the political opposition, including former Prime Minister Ewa Kopacz of the Civic Platform party, were among the marchers, who carried banners reading “We will not surrender freedom.”

Government supporters stood on the sidelines of Tuesday’s march shouting “red swine” and other insults.

Earlier in the day, Law and Justice Chairman Jaroslaw Kaczynski said he does not like the style of political debate in Poland and said government leaders would make “attempts to introduce some kind of order into the opposition’s activity.”

Kaczynski, a former prime minister widely recognized as the power behind the government, did not specify the measures or their timing, but said he expects they will be criticized by many as efforts to limit freedom and democracy.

At the march, people said his words were worrying.

“I would expect only bad things,” Grabowska said. “This is some kind of sick policy. I don’t understand it and it’s hurting Poland’s interest.”

Another marcher, Ewa Kniaziolucka, a history and political science teacher at a Warsaw high school, said she hopes to live to see the current leaders “face the State Tribunal” as punishment for the way they are remaking the country.

“I was really happy that I live in a free country, and they are taking the free country away from me,” she said.

At the same time, a few thousand backers of the ruling party held a remembrance rally to patriotic music in a downtown square where Kaczynski addressed them and spoke about the need for justice and equality.

Adam Rucinski, 50, came in an organized group on a bus from Szczecin, some 550 kilometers (340 miles) away to show his support for government policies.

“We have democracy and freedom to the degree we never had before, but something bad is taking place lately with those unruly KOD marches abusing it. It is worrying me,” Rucinski said. “So I came to show I support the government.”

Law and Justice came to power promising to punish former communists, who they think were let off too easily when communism fell in 1989. They are also hugely critical of the former ruling centrist party, Civic Platform, accusing its members of promoting liberal economic policies that have allowed the rich to get richer but kept many others mired in low wages.

Also Tuesday, Poland’s government said it was taking steps to strip two late communist-era generals of their top military ranks — the two top leaders who imposed martial law on Dec. 13, 1981, Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski, and his deputy, Gen. Czeslaw Kiszczak. Jaruzelski died in 2014 and Kiszczak in 2015.

“Today, for the last time, will the word ‘general’ be used alongside the name of Mr. Jaruzelski” within the Defense Ministry, Defense Minister Antoni Macierewicz said, adding that Kiszczak also was being stripped of his rank.

“Criminals responsible for armed action against their own nation do not deserve to wear these military ranks,” Macierewicz said.

Jaruzelski always insisted he was a patriot who imposed martial law to save the freedom-seeking nation from a Soviet invasion.

While the moves against Jaruzelski and Kiszczak are largely symbolic, Law and Justice party lawmakers also are debating a new law aimed at reducing the pensions of retired secret security officials and some military leaders from the communist era.

Their pensions are higher than pensions of ordinary Poles, and the government argues that officials who served under the system imposed by Moscow do not merit any privileges.

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Vanessa Gera in Warsaw contributed to this story.