WARSAW, Poland — A leader of the Polish Women's Strike, the movement that has led mass nationwide protests against a near total abortion ban in Poland, has been charged with criminal felonies.
The U.S. State Department said it was watching the situation in the allied NATO country "very closely."
Marta Lempart told The Associated Press on Thursday that she was formally read the charges at the district prosecutor's office in Warsaw on Wednesday.
The charges against her include insulting a police officer and causing an epidemiological threat for organizing protests during the coronavirus pandemic. Under Polish law, a person can face from six months to eight years of imprisonment for causing an epidemiological threat.
Lempart was also charged with praising the vandalism of churches and the "malicious obstruction" of religious services after favorable comments in a radio interview about protesters who had sprayed paint on church facades and disrupted Masses during their protests.
Lempart said that she sees the charges as an intensification of political pressure on her movement. Many protesters have previously been charged with misdemeanors for participating in the protests. Lempart said that in almost all of the cases the courts have dropped those charges.
The development comes as the European Union has been expressing its concerns about the erosion of democratic norms in the member state, but finding itself powerless to change much.
Judges, LGBT people, Holocaust scholars and independent media also feel under heavy pressure by the right-wing government. A new planned advertising tax, if passed, is expected to be only the last blow against media diversity.
"Promoting, advocating and defending freedom of speech, the right to peaceful protest and judicial independence: these are critical to every democracy," U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters in Washington.
"We are committed to strengthening our partnership with Poland and advancing the administration's commitment to supporting democratic institutions, human rights and the rule of law. The charges today are part and parcel of a constricting space for civil society in Poland, so we do have broader concerns, including the proposed media tax that has been unveiled recently," Price said.
The protests erupted in October when the constitutional court ruled to ban abortions in the case of fetal defects, growing into the largest anti-government mass movement in Poland since communism fell more than 30 years ago. The ruling took effect in late January.
The abortion restriction was widely denounced by lawmakers in the European Parliament earlier this week, with most saying it marks a violation of women's rights.
AP Diplomatic Writer Matt Lee in Washington contributed to this report.