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Polish police sometimes punch, kick detainees: rights watchdog

WARSAW (Reuters) – Polish police sometimes punch and kick detainees, a European rights watchdog said on Wednesday, warning that in Poland, which has seen mass anti-government protests in recent years, people being arrested run an “appreciable risk of being ill-treated”.

file photo: Police stand guard outside the Parliament building in Warsaw July 18, 2018. REUTERS/Kacper Pempel

The Council of Europe’s anti-torture committee said in a report of a 2017 visit to the largest ex-communist EU state that the great majority of interviewees said they had been treated in a correct manner by the police.

“However, the delegation did hear a number of allegations of physical ill-treatment. Most of these allegations referred to excessive use of force at the time of apprehension,” it said, listing slaps, punches, kicks, truncheon blows, using teasers and locking handcuffs too tightly.

“A few allegations were also heard concerning physical ill-treatment (mainly punches and kicks) in the course of questioning. The delegation’s findings… clearly indicate that persons taken into police custody in Poland continue to run appreciable risk of being ill-treated.”

The report comes as Poland has seen regular and at times mass street protests against the government of the Law and Justice (PiS) party, which won elections in late 2015 on slogans reflecting national pride and promises of higher social spending.

Poland’s interior and justice ministries did not immediately reply to requests for comment.

However, in a response attached to the Council of Europe’s report, Poland’s justice ministry said it had analyzed the cases described and that many of them were not substantiated.

“At the current stage it seems ungrounded to formulate such serious allegations of torture or inhuman or degrading treatment of persons apprehended or detained in detention rooms,” it said.

Tens of thousands of people took to the streets last year in protests against the government’s changes to the Constitutional Tribunal, which the European Union and rights groups have criticized as tightening political control over judges and weakening a key institution of a democratic state.

The protests and EU pressure have had only a limited impact and PiS remains popular among Poles despite accusations by critics that it is undermining democracy.

PiS is now carrying out similar changes to the country’s Supreme Court, which validates election results in Poland. While the protests have dwindled, a picket on Friday outside parliament saw a brief scuffle between protesters and police.

One young demonstrator said he was detained while protesting peacefully and accused the police of beating him while in custody. A police spokesmen said police officers had acted professionally and were reacting to breaches of the law.

The case shows growing tensions between police and protesters at anti-government demonstrations, though it is nowhere close to the violent clashes seen in Greece or Ukraine in recent years.

But a heavy police presence around anti-government protests has become a regular sight in the capital Warsaw, where the parliament building is often fenced off by metal barriers.

The Council of Europe (CoE) said the problem of ill-treatment by police predated PiS.

It was identified in a similar report of the council’s first study visit in 2013, which encouraged whistleblowing to “promote a police culture where it is regarded as unprofessional to work and associate with colleagues who resort to ill-treatment.”

Five years later, the watchdog was forced to reiterate that Poland, which overthrew communism in 1989, should “pursue rigorously” efforts to combat ill-treatment by police.

Other problems listed by the CoE related to providing detainees with insufficient information about their rights or giving them insufficient access to lawyers.

Reporting by Gabriela Baczynska, Editing by William Maclean

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