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Poland: Human rights defenders face threats and intimidation at Belarus border – UN experts

GENEVA (15 February 2022) – Poland must investigate all allegations of harassment of human rights defenders, including media workers and interpreters, at the border with Belarus, and grant access to journalists and humanitarian workers to the border area ensuring that they can work freely and safely, UN human rights experts* said today.

"I am receiving several reports of harassments from human rights defenders who assist migrants and document human rights violations against them at the Polish-Belarusian border, and I am deeply concerned at this practice," said Mary Lawlor, the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders.

Jakub Sypiański, a volunteer interpreter assisting migrants and asylum-seekers, was reportedly stopped by armed soldiers when driving home in November 2021.The soldiers, who were in an unmarked vehicle, did not identify themselves nor explain their actions. They forced open the car door, took the keys out of the ignition and tried pulling him out by his legs.

"Most of the migrants at the border do not speak Polish," said Mary Lawlor. "Interpreters play a vital role in ensuring their human rights are protected both at the border and in immigration detention centres."

At around the same time, armed soldiers reportedly harassed journalists covering the arrival of migrants and asylum seekers. Soldiers who did not identify themselves stopped, searched and handcuffed photojournalists Maciej Moskwa and Maciej Nabrdalik outside a military camp. The soldiers searched their equipment, scrutinising their photos, and documented their phone messages and incoming calls.

Journalists Olivia Kortas and Christoph Kürbel, along with two local Polish residents, were allegedly harassed by soldiers while filming a documentary about the human rights situation of migrants at the border.

"Reports that these journalists are being persecuted for documenting such human rights violations are appalling," said Irene Khan, the Special Rapporteur on the right to freedom of opinion and expression. "Their work is crucial for everyone's access to information about the situation unfolding at the border. If they are not allowed to do their job, there are very serious consequences for the human rights of migrants".

"Interpreters and journalists, along with medics, lawyers and others who peacefully work for the protection of human rights or who provide humanitarian aid, are human rights defenders, according to the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders. Poland should bear this in mind and ensure that they are able to carry out their legitimate work in a safe and enabling environment and with full access to the border area," said Lawlor.

The experts are in contact with the Polish authorities on the matter.

The experts' call was endorsed by: Mr. Felipe González Morales, Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants, and Ms. Elina Steinerte (Chair-Rapporteur), Ms. Miriam Estrada-Castillo (Vice-Chair), Ms. Leigh Toomey, Mr. Mumba Malila, and Ms. Priya Gopalan, Working Group on arbitrary detention.

ENDS

*The experts: Ms. Mary Lawlor, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders; Ms. Irene Khan , Special Rapporteur on the right to freedom of opinion and expression.

Ms. Mary Lawlor is the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders. Ms. Lawlor is currently Associate Professor of Business and Human Rights at the Centre for Social Innovation (CSI) at Trinity College Dublin Business School. In 2001 she founded Front Line Defenders - the International Foundation for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders to focus on human rights defenders at risk. As Executive Director between 2001 and 2016, Ms. Lawlor represented Front Line Defenders and played a key role in its development. Ms. Lawlor was previously Director of the Irish Office of Amnesty International from 1988 to 2000, after becoming a member of the Board of Directors in 1975 and being elected its President from 1983 to 1987.

Ms. Irene Khan was appointed UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression on 17 July 2020. Ms. Khan is the first woman to hold this position since the establishment of the mandate in 1993. She teaches at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva, and was previously Secretary General of Amnesty International from 2001 to 2009 and head of the International Development Law Organization (IDLO) from 2012 to 2019.

Special Rapporteurs are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council's independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures' experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.

For more information and media requests please contact Orsolya Toth (+41 22 917 9913 / orsolya.toth@un.org) or write to OHCHR-defenders@un.org.

For media inquiries related to other UN independent experts, please contact Renato Rosario De Souza (renato.rosariodesouza@un.org) or Jeremy Laurence (+ 41 79 444 7578 / jeremy.laurence@un.org)

Follow news related to the UN's independent human rights experts on Twitter @UN_SPExperts.

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