PłOCK, Masovian Voivodeship, Poland – A Polish court this week on Wednesday threw out the appeal by Polish prosecutors over the acquittal of three women who were charged in 2020 for violation of under article 196 of the Polish Criminal Code (C.C.) colloquially referred to as “offending religious beliefs.”
Article 196 of Poland’s penal code states that offending people’s religious feelings by publicly outraging an object or place of religious worship is a criminal offense.
The three woman, Elżbieta, Anna and Joanna – whose last names have not been released – were arrested in 2019 and charged the next year after they stuck up posters of the Virgin Mary adorned with a rainbow halo, symbolic of the popular flag used to represent the LGBTQ+ community. Had they been convicted they face up to two years in prison each.
“This case is emblematic of a number of disturbing anti-human rights trends in Poland. Not only is space for free expression, activism and peaceful protest shrinking, but the climate of homophobia in the country is worsening amid an increase in hate crimes, the introduction of LGBTI free zones by local councils and attempts to ban Pride Marches,” Amnesty International’s Senior Campaigner for Europe, Catrinel Motoc, said.
“Today’s decision comes as a huge relief but cannot disguise the fact that these three women should never have been put on trial in the first place. Distributing posters of the Virgin Mary wearing a rainbow halo should never be criminalised, so it is right that the appeal against their acquittal was rejected,” Motoc added.
LGBTQ+ rights have become a deeply divisive issue in predominantly Roman Catholic Poland. Religious conservatives condemn what they say is an “ideology” bent on destroying the traditional family while more liberal Poles demand tolerance and equal treatment of what they regard as an oppressed minority, Euronews noted.
In March 2021, Elżbieta, Anna and Joanna were acquitted of “offending religious beliefs” under article 196 of the Criminal Code (C.C.) in relation to the use of posters depicting the Virgin Mary with a rainbow halo symbolic of the LGBTI flag around her head and shoulders.
They were acquitted by the first instance court, but the prosecutor’s appeal brought them to court again, with the hearing scheduled on 8 December 2021.
“Article 196 provides overly broad scope for the authorities to prosecute and criminalize individuals, in violation of their right to freedom of expression. As such, it is incompatible with Poland’s international and regional human rights obligations,” Amnesty International said in a statement.
The authorities arrested Elżbieta in 2019 after she took a trip abroad with Amnesty International campaigners. The authorities opened an initial investigation against her in May 2019. In July 2020, the authorities officially charged the three activists, alleging that the posters “publicly insulted an object of religious worship in the form of this image which offended the religious feelings of others”.
In November 2020, Amnesty International, Campaign Against Homophobia, Freemuse, Front Line Defenders, Human Rights Watch and ILGA-Europe sent a Joint Public Statement urging the Polish Prosecutor General to drop the charges and ensure that the three women are allowed to carry out their human rights work without harassment and reprisals.
More than 275,000 people had joined Amnesty International’s campaign urging the Polish Prosecutor General to drop the unfounded charges against the three women human rights activists.