Polish Government Puts NGOs Under Surveillance

Liberties member the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights and the Helsinki Committee in Poland expressed their utmost concern over the government's surveillance of non-governmental organizations.
"The police and other services of a democratic state must remain politically neutral and act solely on the basis of and within the law. It is unacceptable to use officers for political purposes and to misuse of operational appropriations. All reports of breaches of the law must be investigated in detail and the offenders should be subjected to legal and disciplinary liability if the allegations are confirmed," reads the statement of the Managing Board and the Board of Directors of the HFHR and the Helsinki Committee in Poland.

The HFHR also sent an open letter to Prime Minister Beata Szydło, expressing its outrage at the activities carried out against members of the opposition and activists.

Large-scale operation

According to press reports, the surveillance was a methodical and planned operation. Contrary to official explanations, it was conducted with the purpose of collecting information about the individuals in question and not to protect their safety.

Law enforcement services employed a wide array of operational measures, including on-foot and vehicle surveillance teams technically capable of accessing municipal CCTV network and recording audio and video.

The surveillance teams also used a facial recognition system connected to public databases. Moreover, the article describes the unrestricted use of telephone wiretapping by the police, a measure routinely applied on the basis of prior court authorization.

"Let us once more emphasise that the above actions constitute a far-reaching interference with rights and freedoms of individuals, such as the right to privacy, freedom of speech or freedom of assembly. The unlawful use of the surveillance measures, in particular against members of the Opposition and civic society activists, is absolutely unacceptable. At the same time, the media accounts of the situation provide no grounds for believing that the use of such measures was legitimate," HFHR letter reads.

'Chilling effect'

The HFHR urged the police to present a comment on the recent media accounts, comment that should include detailed information about the scope and purpose of the conducted surveillance operations. The organization also called for a thorough judicial and administrative review of the measures in question.

The HFHR issued a first statement on that matter in July 2017, after uncovering the first information about the observation of opposition members and activists. It emphasized that unauthorized surveillance of the aforementioned groups could have a "chilling effect" on performing their public activities by distorting the political processes of a free democratic state on the one hand and, on the other, the development of civil society and its ability to control activities of the authorities.

Surveillance of protesters

According to media reports, during the protests (provoked by changes to the Supreme Court legislation) held near the parliamentary grounds on 21 July, the police reportedly mounted surveillance of an opposition politician and two NGO activists. The police have provided different explanations for surveillance of different persons.

The police have officially admitted that the surveillance of W. Kinasiewicz and T. Jakrzewski, activists of the Citizens of the Republic of Poland movement, was a response to the activists’ own declarations that “their actions may result in a breach of the legal order”. In the case of Sejm deputy R. Petru, the alleged purpose of surveillance was to protect Mr Petru’s personal safety. However, the police did not inform if the parliamentarian had been informed about or asked for such “protection”.