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November 03, 2021 Report Launch

Trial Observation Report: Poland vs. Elzbieta Podlesna, Anna Prus, and Joanna Gzyra-Iskandar

Podlesna, Prus, and Gzyra-Iskandar were accused of placing posters and stickers depicting the Virgin Mary with a rainbow halo in public spaces.

Podlesna, Prus, and Gzyra-Iskandar were accused of placing posters and stickers depicting the Virgin Mary with a rainbow halo in public spaces.

Photo Credit: Silar, 2019 (, via Wikimedia Commons.


From January to March 2021, the American Bar Association (ABA) Center for Human Rights monitored the trial of human rights defenders Elzbieta Podlesna, Anna Prus, and Joanna Gzyra-Iskandar as part of the Clooney Foundation for Justice’s Trial Watch initiative. The three accused were charged with “offend[ing] the religious feelings of other persons by publicly insulting an object of religious worship, or a place designated for public religious ceremonies” under Article 196 of Poland’s Criminal Code: specifically, they were accused of placing posters and stickers depicting the Virgin Mary with a rainbow halo, a symbol of LGBTIQ+ acceptance, in public spaces in the town of Plock. Although the accused were acquitted by the District Court of Plock, their prosecution constituted a severe violation of their rights to freedom of expression and to freedom from discrimination. These rights are enshrined in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), which Poland acceded to in 1977 and 1993, respectively. With prosecution representatives comparing the rainbow flag to the swastika, condemning the “homolobby,” and deeming homosexuality an abomination, it was clear that Article 196 was but a vehicle to pummel the LGBTIQ+ community.

The case reflects a broader pattern in which the Polish authorities – particularly under the Law and Justice Party’s (PiS) leadership – have used Article 196 to target advocates for LGBTIQ+ equality within a political climate increasingly hostile to the LGBTIQ+ community. The accused’s acquittal demonstrates how vital it is that the international community combat PiS efforts to undermine judicial independence, protecting the ability of courts such as the District Court of Plock to issue decisions based on human rights standards, not the PiS agenda. This report is being released in advance of the prosecution’s appeal of the acquittal, the hearing for which is scheduled for November 10.

On the night of April 26, 2019, Podlesna, Prus, and Gzyra-Iskandar traveled by car to the town of Plock. They spent approximately two hours pasting posters and stickers depicting the Virgin Mary with a rainbow halo on “portable toilets, waste bins, transformers, street signs, [and] walls of buildings” in the vicinity of the Church of St. Dominik. According to the accused, they did so in response to a church installation put up a week prior that featured placards describing homosexuality as a sin and deviation. Subsequently, a criminal investigation was triggered by a complaint made by Tadeusz Łebkowski, a priest at the Church of St. Dominik. On May 6, 2019, Podlesna’s home was searched and she was detained for several hours.

Over a year later, on June 29, 2020, the District Prosecutor in Plock filed an indictment against the three women, charging them under Article 196 with offending religious feelings. Their trial began on January 13, 2021 before the District Court of Plock. Łebkowski and Kaja Godek, a well-known anti-abortion, “pro-family” activist who previously ran for European Parliament, participated in the proceedings in the role of “auxiliary prosecutors,” supporting the State’s case. Notably, cases brought against LGBTIQ+ activists for “offending religious feelings” have been on the rise in parallel with the ascendance of the socially conservative PiS party, which has made anti-LGBTIQ+ rhetoric central to its political platform.

The proceedings against Podlesna, Prus, and Gzyra-Iskandar violated the right to freedom of expression enshrined in the ICCPR and ECHR. The right encompasses speech imparted via all media, including art, and speech that offends and disturbs. While the right to freedom of expression is not absolute, any restrictions on protected speech must (i) be prescribed by law (be precise, clear, and accessible), (ii) serve a legitimate objective, and (iii) be necessary to achieve and proportionate to that objective.

The prosecution of the three accused did not meet any of these requirements. First, Article 196 is not precise, clear, or accessible. In criminalizing acts that “offend the religious feelings of other persons” through public insult, by nature a subjective concept, Article 196 is so broad as to afford the authorities unfettered discretion in its application, making it ripe for abuse. This is demonstrated both by the case against the accused and numerous other prosecutions brought against LGBTIQ+ activists or individuals who deviate from the PiS agenda.

Second, there was no legitimate objective to justify prosecuting the accused. While the State indicated that it brought the case to protect morals arising from the Catholic faith, both the United Nations Human Rights Committee, charged with monitoring implementation of the ICCPR, and the European Court of Human Rights, charged with monitoring implementation of the ECHR, have held that States may not invoke morals to restrict freedom of expression where the restriction “embodie[s] a predisposed bias on the part of a heterosexual majority against a homosexual minority.” As described in more depth below, the prosecution was clearly based on the accused’s activism on behalf of the LGBTIQ+ community. Third, the case against the accused failed to meet necessity and proportionality requirements. With respect to this requirement, international and regional bodies have made clear that criminal prosecutions for speech offenses should be reserved for exceptionally grave acts, such as incitement to genocide and terrorism. The accused’s posting of stickers and posters featuring a rainbow halo clearly did not rise to this level of gravity.

Finally, the trial violated the non-discrimination guarantees established by Articles 2 and 26 of the ICCPR and Article 10 of the ECHR. Discrimination is prohibited both in law and in practice. The UN Human Rights Committee and European Court have established that the ICCPR and ECHR protect against discrimination based on real or perceived sexual orientation and gender identity. In the present case, it was clear that the accused were prosecuted for their advocacy on LGBTIQ+ rights. The indictment highlighted that the criminal charges were based not on the fact that a religious image had been altered but that it had been combined with a “symbol of the LGBT community.” Likewise, throughout the trial the auxiliary prosecutors and other prosecution witnesses consistently made homophobic remarks: among other things, comparing the rainbow flag to swastikas, deeming homosexuality a sin and abomination, and characterizing the placement of the rainbow symbol on the Virgin Mary as profane. Indeed, the court found in its acquitting verdict that contrary to the State’s assertions, the rainbow symbol neither “express[ed] any negative thoughts” nor “carr[ied] shameful, degrading content.” Given that the prosecution stemmed from the accused’s LGBTIQ+ activism, it violated their right to freedom from discrimination.

Although the accused were acquitted, they were subjected to lengthy and costly criminal proceedings. The verdict was issued almost two years after the alleged offense and the prosecution is appealing the acquittal, meaning that the saga will continue indefinitely. More broadly, the case of Podlesna, Prus, and Gzyra-Iskandar is just one of many pending against LGBTIQ+ activists under Article 196. Going forward, courts should intervene at an earlier stage and dismiss such cases, drawing on the Plock District Court’s ruling and international and regional standards. The prosecution’s appeal in the present case, which is scheduled to be heard on November 10, should likewise be rejected.

While the legislature should repeal Article 196, which – as described above – does not conform with international and regional standards, the current political climate makes such an outcome unlikely in the short-term. As such, it is more important than ever that the international community combat the PiS party’s efforts to roll back judicial independence. With the executive and legislature committed to the PiS agenda, the judiciary, as demonstrated by the case against Podlesna, Prus, and Gzyra-Iskandar, is the last bastion for protecting rights such as the right to freedom of expression and right to freedom from discrimination. This is true not only for members of the LGBTIQ+ community but also for other minority groups as well as for anyone who speaks out against PiS policies and rhetoric.



The views expressed herein represent the opinions of the authors. They have not been reviewed or approved by the House of Delegates or the Board of Governors of the American Bar Association and, accordingly, should not be construed as representing the position of the Association or any of its entities. Furthermore, nothing in this report should be considered legal advice for specific cases. Additionally, the views expressed in this report are not necessarily those of the Clooney Foundation for Justice.