Twenty-seven years after democratic elections returned to Poland, a series of so-called freedom marches and picnics took place across the country on Saturday, simultaneously celebrating democracy and accusing the current government of dismantling it.
More then 10,000 people took part in the march in the capital, Warsaw. Like the others around the country, it was organized by the opposition Committee for the Defence of Democracy (KOD).
The marches were supported by Lech Walesa - the former labour leader, Nobel Peace Prize winner and the country's first freely elected president after the fall of communism - and fellow former presidents Aleksander Kwasniewski and Bronislaw Komorowski.
Walesa did not attend the Warsaw march, but Kwasniewski and Komorowski marched prominently at the front of the rally.
Marchers chanted "Freedom, equality, democracy!" and carried Polish and European flags.
The KOD organized the marches to protest what they say is the dismantling of Poland's constitution and the rule of law by the conservative government of the Law and Justice party (PiS), led by Jaroslaw Kaczynski.
"Kaczynski did not expect this: that people would wake up to the cause of freedom," said former rights activist and KOD co-founder Krzysztof Lozinski.
He recalled that not all countries in Eastern Europe had as peaceful a transition to democracy as Poland, which went from partially democratic elections on June 4, 1989, to full and free elections in 1991.
In Romania, communist strongman Nicolae Ceausescu was executed, which Lozinski said was because "he didn't want to talk to society."
"We do not want it to end like that in Poland," he warned.
The three former Polish presidents had earlier made an appeal to the people of Europe to defend democracy and the rule of law in a joint letter.
"From the streets and squares on which Solidarnosc was born, we call all Europeans to solidarity," they wrote, referring to Walesa's independent trade union movement, whose name translates into English as Solidarity and which ultimately overthrew autocratic communist rule in Poland.
"We speak for hundreds of thousands - free Polish citizens - who have for half a year been demonstrating on the streets for their ties to democracy, the rule of law and a free Europe," the letter said.
The current Polish government, which took up office six months ago, has clashed with the European Union about changes it has made to the selection process for the judiciary and the head of the state broadcaster, resulting in a warning being issued by Brussels last week.
The government also faced resistance from the Constitutional Tribunal, which has tried to strike down the judicial changes as unconstitutional.
PiS leader Kaczynski accused opponents of the government of "rebellion" at a party meeting earlier Saturday. He also accused judges who had resisted the changes the party was making of themselves violating the constitution.
"If we want to have a democracy under the rule of law, then no state body, including the Constitutional Tribunal, can disregard laws," he said. "We are dealing with a rebellion here."
June 4 has been marked as Freedom Day since the first partially democratic elections were permitted on June 4, 1989. Walesa's Solidarity movement took all the freely contested seats that had not been reserved for the Communist Polish United Workers Party. That win marked the start of a peaceful transition to full democracy.
Saturday, February 27, 2016 - 15:59
Sunday, February 28, 2016 - 17:02