WARSAW Poland's ombudsman and human rights campaigners have criticized a bill they say will undermine Poles' right to freedom of assembly by making it much harder to stage counter-demonstrations to rallies sponsored by the state or the church.
Lawmakers of Poland's ruling Law and Justice party (PiS) approved the bill on its first reading in the early hours of Wednesday, part of a wave of legislation the government says aims to strengthen traditional Catholic and national values.
The bill, which still has to clear a few hurdles before becoming law, would also transfer to government officials many powers now enjoyed by local governments on deciding whether to allow a public assembly to go ahead.
"This draft bill should not be passed because the proposed solutions it contains are not in line with the constitution and international standards delineating the scope of freedom of assembly," Polish ombudsman Adam Bodnar said in a statement.
"The freedom of assembly belongs to the basic political rights of a human being, so citizens should first of all benefit from it, not the authorities," he said.
The bill would explicitly ban any assemblies from taking place at the same time and place as those organized by the authorities or churches.
It would also introduce 'cyclical' rallies - a special designation to be granted by a government official to repetitive rallies aimed at celebrating "especially ... important events for Poland's history".
Organizers of such 'cyclical' rallies would have priority in choosing the place and time over other planned gatherings and local authorities would be obliged to ban any non-'cyclical' protests in case of an overlap.
"If this bill enters into law, it will significantly limit the possibility of organizing counter-demonstrations and spontaneous rallies," the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights said in a statement.
Under current rules, a local authority gives precedence to the organization that files the first request to stage a rally or demonstration, irrespective of the aims of the gathering.
PiS lawmakers defended the new bill, saying it protected citizens' right to protest.
"This bill is aimed at widening, increasing citizens' rights, which are of huge value in Poland," PiS lawmaker Arkadiusz Czartoryski told parliament.
The nationalist-minded, euroskeptic PiS has vowed to revamp Poland's young democracy to better reflect traditional Catholic values as well as to curb corruption and increase welfare.
Laws passed by PiS have already made it more difficult for the constitutional court to pass rulings, a move that led the European Commission and European Parliament to say that Poland's democracy and the rule of law were threatened.
PiS, which remains popular among voters, ousted the previous centrist government in an election last year, becoming the first party to hold an absolute majority in parliament in nearly three decades. President Andrzej Duda is a close ally of the party.
The bill on freedom of assembly still requires the final approval of the lower house, the Sejm, and also of the upper chamber Senate and the president before becoming law.
PiS faced mass street protests earlier this year against its actions relating to the constitutional court and a bill that would have almost completely outlawed abortion. The parliament later dropped the abortion bill.
(Reporting by Marcin Goettig; Editing by Gareth Jones)