The courts are increasingly frequently awarding compensation to activists for mass breaches of their rights by the police
‘Groundless’, ‘incorrect’ and often also ‘illegal’ detentions, police brutality, humiliation – demonstrators are being awarded from several to up to 20,000 zlotys by court order for that. Increasingly more activists are filing successive claims
On 3 January, activist Arkadiusz Szczurek was boasting on Twitter: ‘The Regional Court awarded me 10k compensation today for wrongful arrest (…) without reason for almost 2 days’.
This happened on 10 October 2021, when Lotna Brygada Opozycji [Eng.: the Opposition Flight Brigade] registered its picket at Zachęta and entered its walls within the framework of its monthly Smolensk counter-manifestations. They were asking the standard questions of Jarosław Kaczyński from there through megaphones: ‘Did you order your brother to land, Balbina?’ or ‘Jarek, where’s the wreckage?’ (‘Balbina’ is believed to have been Jarosław Kaczyński’s pseudonym as an informer for the communist regime in the era of the People’s Republic of Poland, although no hard evidence has been presented).
The activists could be heard at the Smolensk memorial very clearly. Kaczynski was angry, important PiS politicians were nervous.
So the police assaulted the activists and detained them for as long as two days.
In cold basement cells, with a ‘horrible stench and stuffiness’, no bedding and basic food (two slices of bread with cheese for the whole day). Even access to the toilet was difficult. ‘I had to bang away at the door for a long time. (…) I waited up to 1.5 hours,’ Szczurek explained in court. He found it difficult to sleep in that cell because the light was on all the time. ‘I felt completely humiliated, (…) spat on,’ reads his testimony in the case files.
The court first ruled that the detention was groundless and, in early January, awarded him compensation – that PLN 10,000. ‘I feel satisfied. Although the amount should have been higher – we applied for PLN 20,000,’ Arkadiusz Szczurek tells us. He was represented by attorney Radosław Galusiakowski in court pro publico bono.
‘The amount is a sign of how significant this breach of the law is’.
This is the third compensation that the courts have awarded this activist.
By now, there are almost certainly dozens, if not hundreds of demonstrators in a similar situation – with money already awarded for breaches of their rights by the police and the prosecutor’s office, for political harassment. ‘A new line of judgments is arising for us. It’s been a long time since there has been such a situation, so many such applications,’ emphasizes Karolina Gierdal, a lawyer defending activists pro bono within SZPILA – an anti-repression collective providing legal aid.
Other than the above, the courts also awarded Szczurek:
- PLN 10,000 for his detention outside Kaczyński’s house on 23 October 2020.
This was the first of the large demonstrations of the Women’s Strike immediately after the infamous ruling by Przyłębska’s Constitutional Tribunal on abortion on 22 October 2020. There, Szczurek was subjected to tear gas, knocked down, cuffed and taken to a police cell. His detention was first approved by the prosecutor, who charged him with being a part of a crowd, ‘knowing that its participants are jointly committing a violent attack on a person or property’ (Article 254 of the Penal Code). However, on 27 June 2022, Prosecutor Katarzyna Bojarska of the Warsaw District Prosecutor’s Office discontinued these proceedings, not only against Szczurek but against all the people detained at that time in front of the PiS chairman’s house.
- PLN 4,000 compensation + statutory interest, for being detained for entering the Smolensk memorial with an EU flag (protesting against the anti-EU statements of the PiS politicians), 22 July 2021.
The police restricted the activist’s freedom for more than two hours. The public prosecutor’s office appealed for a reduction in the amount awarded from PLN 4,000 to….PLN 100. Although the public prosecutor approved Szczurek’s detention, the Warsaw Regional Prosecutor’s Office admitted in the appeal that it was ‘undoubtedly unjust’. Even more interestingly, exactly the same thing was written in the appeal by… the Capital’s Police Chief.
Szczurek comments: ‘This is a reprimand for the police, an assessment of their conduct, as well as that of the prosecutor’s office. Because the prosecutor’s office approved the arrests every time. And the amount of money is a sign of how significant this breach of the law is.’
She has already been detained 23 times, she was awarded compensation four times
The national record-holder among the activists who have already been granted compensation by the courts is probably Katarzyna Augustynek, better known as Granny Kasia.
‘The courts have already awarded me compensation in four of my 23 detentions,’ reports the activist.
- PLN 10,000 for her detention outside TVP on 26 March 2021
The court held that it was ‘undoubtedly unjust’ and that the use of such a coercive measure was ‘disproportionate and pointless’.
- PLN 10,000 for her brutal detention 5 days later, also outside TVP
- PLN 8,000 – for her detention on 21 April 2021 outside the Supreme Court
The police then brought Granny Kasia to trial in an accelerated procedure – like for a stadium hooligan. And it completely lost that case. During the trial, one of the prevention officers testified that he was ‘afraid’ of the pensioner, even though there were four large men and she was already cuffed on the floor of the police car. Another complained: ‘she pinched me twice’. The Warsaw police force’s defeat was so spectacular that, after this, they no longer tested the accelerated trial procedure on demonstrators.
- PLN 20,000 for being arrested on 28 January 2021 in front of the Constitutional Tribunal.
That evening, the police locked hundreds of protesters in a ring. Many, like Granny Kasia, were charged with a ‘breach of their inviolability’. The court held that this was detention without any legal grounds, Ms Augustynek was carried to a police car in such a way that her health was put at risk. She was taken to police stations outside Warsaw – to Piastów and Pruszków, without any reason; she was subjected to a personal inspection which was intended to humiliate her and demonstrate power over her. Finally, she was unnecessarily imprisoned in a cell, even though she should have been released after being identified.
The power of compensation
On the so-called rainbow night, 7 August 2020, when the crowd was blocking the arrest of an LGBTQ activist, Margot, Andżelika Domańska, a mother of two children, sent her children home so that she could also block police cars in Krakowskie Przedmieście. Many hours later, police officers came out of a side street and dragged her into a police car – because she was wearing a rainbow scarf on her face. As it later transpired during the trials, the uniformed officers were ordered to detain anyone with rainbow emblems, regardless of their behaviour.
At the police station, Domańska did not receive medical attention when she asked for it, but only after seven hours – she did not receive her diabetes medication. ‘Then the police officer lost my prescriptions. When I started to lose consciousness, it was the policewoman who took out a camera and started filming to show where my hands were if I were to die. I lost my consciousness in hospital,’ Domańska tells us. On top of that, the police allowed her children to be left unattended for longer.
The scale of misconduct on the part of the capital’s police force was so long that the judge referred in the sentence to the ‘oppressive and anti-civic’ actions by uniformed officers.
The court held that her detention was ‘groundless’, ‘incorrect’ and ‘illegal’.
Even the prosecutor admitted that Andżelika had a right to fear for her life in this situation. The judge awarded the maximum amount of compensation claimed by the activist – PLN 15,000. ‘But he said that if PLN 25,000 would have been claimed, he would have awarded that much,’ Domanska reports on the oral ruling. The prosecutor in the first instance allegedly insisted on no compensation, whereas, in the appeal, he already agreed to PLN 3,000, i.e. approx. PLN 150 per hour of restriction of freedom. The capital’s police force put a price of PLN 100 per hour on freedom.
Rainbow night is probably the event from which the largest number of people were awarded damages by the courts
In the overwhelming majority of cases, the judges held that the arrests were at least ‘groundless’. After all, the prosecutor’s office was aware of this – it did not press any charges against the detainees for a very long time. ‘Many people have applied for compensation and redress,’ says Attorney Karolina Gierdal of Szpila. The lawyers working for this collective have not yet counted exactly how many of the 48 people detained at that time have been awarded compensation.
Domańska claims to know at least 10 such people.
- Dominik Puchała – PLN 10,000.
Counsellor Gierdal herself has four such cases, while her clients have received from PLN 8,000 to over PLN 15,000.
Counsellor Agata Bzdyń, also from Szpila, described one of the cases she won on 22 May 2022. ‘The court had no doubts whatsoever that the detention should not have taken place at all. There cannot be a situation in a country governed by the rule of law that citizens are detained without any basis, nor are they given any information as to why this has happened.’
Radosław Galusiakowski was handling the case of a girl who was detained on rainbow night simply for holding a rainbow flag (sic!). She sat in a police cell for 24 hours. The court of the first instance awarded her PLN 10,000 damages, but the prosecutor appealed, requesting a reduction in this amount to PLN 500, while the capital’s police force requested that no compensation be awarded at all.
This compensation is not obtained without problems
For example, the court of appeal, the bench of which included Przemysław Radzik – one of the more active ‘good change’ judges – reduced the compensation for Galusiakowski’s client to PLN 1,000.
Attorney-at-Law: ‘A cassation appeal has gone to the Supreme Court. Because a thousand zlotys for a day in a cell, in a mess, without observance of basic hygienic conditions, with the need to undress, is definitely not enough. Dr Wojciech Górowski, a researcher from the Criminal Law Department of the Jagiellonian University, rightly pointed out on Twitter that there is a systemic problem with respect for human freedom in Poland.’
‘The body that made the arrest, namely the police, is under the obligation to make payment’.
All these court decisions from the last two years are non-final. Not only does the prosecutor’s office appeal in each case, but so does the police – namely primarily the capital’s police force – the lion’s share of these cases are heard in Warsaw. It is standard practice for the prosecutor’s office to offer victims amounts of several hundred zlotys in appeals, and for the police to offer even symbolic rates, such as PLN 100, or zero zlotys.
‘According to Article 554 of the Criminal Procedures Code, the body that made the arrest, namely the police, is under the obligation to make the payment,’ Karolina Gierdal explains. She adds that, if a complaint against the detention is filed with the district court and it is unsuccessful, and the regional court finds that the detention was incorrect, then the president of the district court can be charged with the payment of the compensation.
Arkadiusz Szczurek regrets that the police officers who made the given damage are not personally financially liable for their actions.
‘I intend to charge them individually,’ he points out. Andżelika Domańska already announced at the trial that she needed compensation in order to sue the police officer who breached her rights on rainbow night in a civil action for that money. And she upholds that.
Granny Kasia is not satisfied with the amounts awarded, even the largest amount.
‘Because it is paid from public money, which is also my money. Whereas the guilty should pay,’ she emphasizes.
Radosław Baszuk, a lawyer defending the activists pro bono, says there is a way of financially charging the officers whose actions resulted in the need to pay compensation – the right of recourse. The State Treasury, which pays the compensation, can claim it back from those who are responsible. ‘But this is a dead provision. I have not seen it applied for 24 years,’ Baszuk points out.
‘The actions of the police (…) are in conflict with the applicable provisions of the law, (…) reprehensible and groundless’.
The Citizens of Poland already have final rulings in their pockets – among activists, they are the precursors in obtaining compensation for police harassment.
The majority of these rulings apply to compensation for detaining Citizens of Poland on 11 November 2017.
It was then that a group of approximately 40 Citizens of Poland stood in protest against the Independence March on ul. Smolna in Warsaw. They shouted ‘Warsaw free of fascism’ and held anti-fascist banners. By the time the front of the nationalist procession reached the square at ul. Smolna, the police officers had disbanded the counter-manifestation. They forcibly dragged everyone into Black Marias and took them to the police station.
They were kept there for six hours, facing charges of disrupting another demonstration and promoting … fascism.
The courts had already declared the detentions ‘groundless’, ‘incorrect’ and ‘doubtlessly wrong’ in 2018. The police explained their actions by the fact that the Citizens of Poland were allegedly planning to lie down on the route of the march of the nationalists. However, no one from this group had even attempted to do so. Some of the Citizens – we received the case files of nine members – filed claims for compensation after winning their cases.
They all received them in 2019.
The prosecutors lost their appeals en masse. The compensation awarded ranged from PLN 1,500 (the most common), to PLN 4,000. The differences in the amounts awarded were due, among other things, to the duration of the detention – some were held in a cramped corridor of the police station for just two hours, others for 2–3 times longer.
- Agnieszka – PLN 4,000 + interest.
She had not committed a crime or an offence and there ‘were no grounds for detention’. ‘The police action that was conducted should be considered to be in conflict with the applicable provisions of the law and therefore reprehensible and groundless,’ argued the court.
- Tadeusz Jakrzewski – PLN 4,000 + interest.
The prosecutor did not dispute that compensation was due, but he proposed PLN 500 in the first instance, and raised the ceiling to PLN 2,000 in the appeal. The court upheld PLN 4,000.
- Paweł Kasprzak – PLN 4,000 + interest.
‘The actions taken by the officers should be considered unjustified and disproportionate in that situation’.
- Jan – PLN 1,500 + interest.
Compensation also for ‘a breach of his right to express his views’
Snowball or avalanche?
Much more compensation may soon be awarded by the courts, as many activists are claiming it. Arek Szczurek is claiming it for being detained in Park Saski, on 10 May 2022, during the legal monthly Smolensk counter-manifestations. At that time, officers formed a cordon and closed in all participants of the Opposition Flight Brigade picket, keeping them 150m away from the place of their demonstration.
The activists were only released when the PiS chairman and his entourage of party politicians left Plac Pilsudskiego. The court already held that this detention was ‘groundless, incorrect and illegal’.
- Karol Grabski and Julia Łowkis, also from the Opposition Flight Brigade, will be applying for compensation for being detained for two days after the event on the Zachęta walls (see – beginning of this article). Stanisława Skłodowska, also from the Opposition Flight Brigade, is already waiting for a court decision in one of her cases.
- Granny Kasia is talking of a further 3–4 of her detentions, in which the courts have already received claims for compensation.
- Linus Lewandowski, an LGBTQ activist, is seeking redress for two detentions in one day – 9 January 2021. He is waiting for the court’s decision. ‘I am claiming 30,000 zlotys. They held me for a total of 40 hours,’ Lewandowski claims.
- Dominik Berlinski is also waiting for the court’s decision – he has filed two compensation claims. The first for detentions during the protest following the Constitutional Tribunal’s ruling. ‘They held me for 20 hours. I already have a verdict that it was legal, but ‘unjustified and incorrect.’ The second, during the monthly Smolensk counter-manifestations, in December 2021 – because he refused to allow himself to be identified. ‘The court said they had no right to detain me and we were able to chant “where is the wreckage”,’ explains Berliński.
Attorney Galusiakowski is handling 5–6 further compensation claims in addition to the two which already have judgments.
‘Citizens of Poland will also certainly be filing claims for redress for the further arrests in rings on 11 November 2022,’ announces Magdalena Bakun of ObyPomocy.
It could be another dozen or so claims
Because the movement’s members were again held by the police in a ring for 6 hours without even being able to use the wc during the last Independence March. Deputy Ombudsman Dr Hanna Machinska intervened at that time, and TVN24 was broadcasting a live programme on that.
There are still also pending cases of detentions from the Women’s Strike demonstrations. Gierdal had a case in which the bench included some of the best-known ‘good change’ people – Przemysław Radzik, Piotr Schab and Dariusz Drajewicz from the neo-NCJ. The lawyer managed to have the first two removed from the bench.
‘My eyes are fine’
The redress that is being awarded is causing a ruckus in the right-wing media. Jerzy Jachowicz wrote with indignation about the compensation awarded by the courts to Arkadiusz Szczurek in his column in ‘wPolityce’. The propagandist claimed that he is a ‘leech’, ‘living like a king on court money’ and is ‘dependent on the state’. And the courts are ‘rewarding him’, while he received compensation ‘for running around over the monument’.
None of what Jachowicz writes is true.
Szczurek has not yet received a single zloty of the amounts awarded. We wanted to ask Jachowicz why he posted this false information.
‘My eyes are fine’ says Jachowicz at first. When he realized that OKO.press is not an ophthalmologist’s surgery and I want to ask him about the lies in the article, he quickly backed out.
‘Oh no, thank you.’ And he hung up.
Published in Polish on OKO.press on 17 January 2023.
We are publishing this text as part of the international project PATFox ‘Pioneering anti-SLAPP Training for Freedom of Expression,’ in which organizations from 11 European Union countries, including the OKO Foundation, educate about SLAPPs (Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation). The project is funded by the DG Justice.