Polish opposition MPs stripped of immunity over paedophilia cover-up protest and defamation

Poland’s lower house of parliament has voted to strip two opposition MPs of their immunity to allow them to face criminal charges. The issue split the Sejm and only passed thanks to the government’s narrow majority.

Joanna Scheuring-Wielgus, from The Left, faces charges of violation of the misdemeanour code after she took part in a protest in 2018 against alleged cover-ups of paedophilia by the Catholic church hierarchy in Poland.

In a separate case, Sławomir Nitras, from the largest opposition party, Civic Platform (PO), faces defamation charges over a social media post in which he made comments about another MP wearing a T-shirt with an allegedly racist and Islamophobic message.

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The motion to waive Scheuring-Wielgus’s immunity was filed by the head of police, who claims she violated a provision of the misdemeanour code which prohibits posting notices and posters without the consent of the people who manage the facilities, reports Gazeta Wyborcza. This crime can carry a prison sentence or a fine.

In 2018, the MP displayed baby shoes and posters on the gate of the Basilica of St John the Baptist in Toruń with the slogan “Baby Shoes Remember. Stop Paedophilia” during a protest against alleged cover-ups of paedophilia cases by the Catholic church.

The protest was part of the “Baby Shoes Remember” campaign, the aim of which was “to demand justice for all the victims and survivors of Catholic church abuse”.

“If needs be, I will stand before the courts. And I will always side with the wronged, not the perpetrators,” Scheuring-Wielgus wrote last month, after the decision of the parliamentary committee, where the motion was initially approved.

In a separate case, Poland’s prosecutor general Zbigniew Ziobro also filed a motion to waive Scheuring-Wielgus’s parliamentary immunity so she could face criminal charges for protesting in a church against a near-total ban on abortion.

The incident in question took place on 25 October 2020, the first Sunday after Poland’s Constitutional Tribunal issued a ruling that introduced a near-total ban on abortions in Poland. On that day, women’s rights activists staged protests against the ruling, demonstrating inside churches.

Among them were Scheuring-Wielgus and her husband, Piotr Wielgus. During morning mass, they entered the church in Toruń where they had married 17 years earlier. Standing in front of the altar, they held up signs calling for women to have the right to decide on abortion, “and not the state in support of Catholic ideology”.

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A junior partner in Poland’s conservative ruling coalition United Poland, led by Ziobro, has proposed toughening up the country’s blasphemy law to allow anyone who “publicly insults the church” or interrupts mass to be jailed for up to three years.

The other MP stripped of immunity on Thursday, Sławomir Nitras, faces defamation charges. Marek Palarczyk, a former member of the small conservative party Kukiz’15, wants to file charges after Nitras tweeted about a man strolling through the Sejm wearing a T-shirt bearing the legend: “Racist, xenophobe, patriot. Poland without Islam” in 2017.

Even though Palarczyk was not directly referred to in the tweet, he claimed that Nitras misquoted the message on the T-shirt, and that he has the right to dress as he pleases, he told 7 Dni, a Częstochowa regional weekly.

At the time, Polsat News reported on an instance of a person wearing a T-shirt with that description in the Sejm but did not mention Palarczyk.

Poland has one of the broadest and strictest defamation laws in any democracy, according to a study by the OSCE. In recent years, there have also been a growing number of indictments for the crime of “offending religious sentiment”, which can be punished with up to two years in prison.

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Main image credit: Robert Górecki/Agencja Wyborcza.pl

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