Poland Moves Towards Becoming a Police State

Douglas Crawford

Douglas Crawford

June 21, 2016

The Polish government has passed a new counter-terrorism and surveillance law (in Polish) that allows it to block the internet, and hugely expands its power to spy on citizens. At the very heart of this law is discrimination against foreigners that is inconsistent with both the Polish Constitution and the European Convention on Human Rights. This, in turn, means that the law is inconsistent with Poland’s membership in the EU. It also moves Poland worryingly towards becoming a fully-fledged police state.

The new Anti-terrorism Law gives security agencies almost unlimited (and worryingly ill-defined) powers to monitor all personal data and communications of its citizens, and to shut down communications and websites. All without any form of judicial oversight. It also limits the right to free assembly, and lowers the legal protections available to foreigners.

The Polish government claims that the law is necessary in order to face security concerns related to upcoming events – notably the NATO summit (Warsaw, July 2016) and World Youth Day (Krakow, June 2016). As an official statement by human rights watchdog Freedom House, however, notes that,

Granting open-ended powers to intelligence agencies to counter terrorism at the cost of every citizen’s privacy and freedom marks a clear abuse of power by the government. The government seems determined to allow police and intelligence agencies to monitor all personal data and all communications without needing to establish the existence of any actual threat, a disturbing step toward removing checks and balances on government action.

It should also be noted that Poland is considered a low-priority target for terrorists. Some of the most worrying issues with the new law include:

People suspected of terrorist involvement can be jailed for 14 days without charge (the current limit is 48 hours).

The government can limit freedom of assembly by banning public protests if it can somehow claim that terrorism is involved. An example of how this can be easily abused is the 2012 protests against ACTA, during which several government websites were hacked. Under the new law, the government could declare such hacking to be “terrorist” in nature, and then use this to ban street protests.

The Internal Security Agency (ABW) now has unlimited access to all public databases without any form of oversight. This includes the “public registers of 15 key state and local institutions, such as social security (PESEL), motor vehicles (CEPiK), the national crime register (KRK), all ministries including the ministry of foreign affairs (consular and visa records), the border patrol, local real estate registers, and records of various financial institutions, as well as public surveillance records. With a court order, the agency will be allowed to obtain information on private bank accounts, investments and insurance records now covered under bank secrecy.”

The ABW can shut down all internet and/or phone communications within a specified area. It can do this for 5 days before a court order is even required to verify that the block is justified.

Foreigners can be targeted for wiretaps, searches, and fingerprint verification at any time. Foreigners can be spied upon for up to 3 months without a court order, and can be deported without charge or even evidence. They can then only appeal from outside the country. By reducing the legal protections available to foreigners, the law allows them to be targeted based on their ethnicity or religion etc.

People can be detained and premises can be searched at night (these actions currently prohibited between 10pm and 6am). This paves the way for highly intimidatory tactics by the police.

ID must be shown when buying pre-paid phones. The fact that this can requirement can be easily circumvented by criminals by simply crossing over the Polish border demonstrates that the law is aimed at monitoring ordinary citizens.

Poland a police state?

Since the election in August last year of Andrzej Duda as President, followed by that of Beata Szydło as Prime Minister, the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party has presided over alarming lurch to the right in Polish politics. The new Anti-terrorism Law constitutes a direct attack on democratic rights, and many of its provisions blatantly contradict the Polish Constitution.

The PiS government, however, effectively gagged the Constitutional Court last December (which might have ruled its actions unconstitutional). It has also merged functions of the Minister of Justice with those of the Attorney General. it also granted the police extended rights to conduct phone and Internet spying.

The Anti-terrorism Law confirms that the PiS is determined to turn Poland into any anti-democratic police state. It has deliberately exploited base public prejudices by conflating the refugee crisis with terrorism, in order to justify a terrible assault on freedoms that most Europeans take for granted.

That the new law takes particular aim at foreigners is only further reason to fear the extremist direction that Polish politics has taken. Writing as British citizen, I also fear that it sets a worrying precedent. Though the legislation goes much further than Theresa May’s plans, the Snooper’s Charter is a foothold on the same slippery slope…

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