Poland’s opposition loosens abortion stance to please younger voters

WARSAW (Reuters) – Poland’s main opposition party called on Thursday for changes in the law to allow pregnancies to be terminated on demand, in a substantial policy shift amid growing strife over abortion in the predominantly Catholic nation.

However, while the centrist Civic Platform (PO) announced a change in its platform, legislative changes are unlikely in the current parliamentary term which is due to continue until 2023.

A Constitutional Court ruling mandating a near total ban on abortion from last October has upturned nearly three decades of broad consensus in Poland that abortion should be allowed only in the case of rape, incest, a threat to the mother’s health and fetal abnormality.

The ruling also exposed growing support among young voters in particular for a liberalization of abortion rules in line with the European mainstream, despite the nationalist government’s backing of the court verdict.

The PO said on Thursday it wanted women to have access to abortions at up to 12 weeks of pregnancy in “difficult” situations after consulting with a doctor and psychologist, while also calling for broader access to sex education, birth control, in vitro and prenatal testing.

“This is a response to what our voters expect. A clear stance on this matter,” PO head Borys Budka told a news conference.

Political observers say young voters, many of whom filled the streets with protests for weeks after the court ruling, may be crucial to the outcome of the next parliamentary election, due in 2023.

Opinion surveys have shown a sharp turn towards the left among youth, while the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) appeals to older, poorer voters. Budka’s PO has relied on centrist voters and moderate conservatives for over two decades.

A February poll published by Polish daily Dziennik Gazeta Prawna showed that over 40% of Poles, especially younger voters, believe abortion rules should be liberalized.

An SW Research poll conducted soon after the court ruling indicates that over 70% of Poles were against the decision to further restrict abortion rights in the country.

(Reporting by Joanna Plucinska; Editing by Justyna Pawlak and Frances Kerry)

Polish ruling restricting abortion to take effect on Wednesday

By Anna Koper and Joanna Plucinska

WARSAW (Reuters) – A Polish Constitutional Court verdict restricting access to abortion will go into effect on Wednesday, Poland’s government said, three months after it sparked nationwide protests.

In October, the Constitutional Court said termination of pregnancies due to fetal defects should be banned, ending the most common of the few legal grounds for abortion that remained in the largely Roman Catholic country.

Under the ruling, abortions are now only permitted in cases of rape and incest, and when the mother’s life or health is endangered, pushing Poland further from the European mainstream.

Officials from the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party said the government would now focus on assisting parents of disabled children, although PiS and its predecessors have been accused by critics of not doing enough to help such families so far.

“The state can no longer take a life away only because someone is sick, disabled, in poor health,” PiS lawmaker Bartlomiej Wroblewski told Reuters.

Conservative values have taken a more prominent role in public life since the nationalist PiS took power in 2015. Access to abortion has declined even without the legislative curbs as more doctors refuse to perform the procedure on religious grounds.

Opponents of PiS have accused it of influencing the ruling, because the Constitutional Tribunal is one of the judicial bodies overhauled by the party during reforms that the European Union says have politicized the courts.

“No law-abiding government should respect this ruling,” Borys Budka, leader of Poland’s largest opposition party, the centrist Civic Platform, told reporters.

The government information center said the court’s verdict would be published in its official gazette – a step necessary for it to take effect – later on Wednesday.

Abortion rights activities called for opponents of the ruling to gather in the streets across Poland following the government’s announcement, which had been expected for weeks.

“We are inviting everyone, please, go out, be motivated, so we can walk together, make a mark,” protest group leader Marta Lempart told news conference.

Opinion surveys have shown some decline in PiS popularity in recent months, but a poll by the government-affiliated CBOS pollster showed it edging back up to 35% this month, from 30% in October. PiS and its two small parliamentary allies won re-election in 2019 with a 44% share of the vote.

(Reporting by Anna Koper, Joanna Plucinska and Anna Wlodarczak-Semczuk; Editing by John Stonestreet and Alex Richardson)

Washington hits Belarus with sanctions as Minsk retaliates against EU measures

(Reuters) – The United States imposed sanctions on eight Belarusian officials on Friday, accusing them of involvement in rigging President Alexander Lukashenko’s re-election victory in August or the violent crackdown on protests that followed.

The move came after the European Union announced sanctions on 40 people, including the interior minister and the head of the election commission, achieving a breakthrough on the issue at summit talks in the early hours of Friday morning.

Lukashenko was spared, in line with the EU’s policy of punishing powerbrokers as a last resort. He denies electoral fraud and says the protests are backed from abroad.

Lukashenko’s government announced retaliatory sanctions against unidentified officials, recalled its ambassadors to Poland and Lithuania for consultations and nudged both countries to reduce the size of their embassy staff in Minsk.

Lukashenko is grappling to contain nearly two months of street protests that pose the biggest challenge to his 26-year rule. More than 13,000 people have been arrested, and major opposition figures jailed or exiled.

“The United States and our international partners stand united in imposing costs on those who have undermined Belarusian democracy for years,” U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in a statement.

The U.S. sanctions also targeted Belarusian Interior Minister Yuri Karaev and his deputy. Those under sanctions are subject to asset freezes and a ban against Americans doing business with them.

Washington had originally been expected to impose sanctions in concert with Britain and Canada, which went ahead on Tuesday with travel bans and asset freezes on Lukashenko, his son Viktor and other senior officials.

Washington has had sanctions on Lukashenko since 2006 but the president was spared in the latest round of measures.

LUKASHENKO SPEAKS TO PUTIN

The crisis has pushed Belarus back towards traditional ally Russia, which has propped up Lukashenko’s government with loans and the offer of military support. Moscow sees its ex-Soviet neighbor as a strategic buffer against the EU and NATO.

Lukashenko and Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke by phone on Friday, expressing confidence that “the problems that have arisen will soon be resolved”, the Kremlin said.

Lukashenko’s government announced it had drawn up a list of people who were banned from travelling to Belarus in retaliation for the EU sanctions. It did not name the officials or the countries they were from.

“…we are imposing visa sanctions against the most biased representatives of European institutions, including the European Parliament and the states – EU members,” foreign ministry spokesman Anatoly Glaz was quoted by the official Belta news agency as saying.

“The list is symmetrical in many ways. We have decided not to make it public for now.”

Russia’s foreign ministry said the Belarusian sanctions would apply in Russia as well.

Lukashenko’s government also asked the Polish and Lithuanian embassies to reduce their staff. Both countries refused.

“We are not going to summon our ambassadors for consultations, and we will definitely not do anything to reduce personnel,” Lithuanian Foreign Affairs Minister Linas Linkevicius told reporters.

“We are not interested in reducing our communications channel,” he said. “If the advice becomes a request, then we will take appropriate measures.”

The Belarusian authorities have detained journalists or stripped them of their accreditation as part of the crackdown on the unrest that followed the Aug. 9 election.

On Friday, the foreign ministry announced it was stripping journalists working for foreign media organizations of their accreditation, and asked them to reapply for their permits.

“I would like to make it clear that it is in no way some attempt to cleanse the news reporting field,” Glaz was quoted by Belta as saying.

The EU sanctions had been held up by Cyprus due to an unrelated dispute with Turkey. The delay dented the credibility of the EU’s foreign policy, diplomats said.

“That we could now agree to those sanctions is an important signal because it strengthens the hand of those who are protesting for freedom of opinion in Belarus,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel told journalists.

Merkel will meet on Tuesday with Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, Lukashenko’s main electoral opponent who fled into exile after the vote in the ex-Soviet republic, fearing for her family’s safety.

French President Emmanuel Macron met Tsikhanouskaya on Tuesday, pledging European support for the Belarusian people.

(Reporting by Matt Spetalnick, Daphne Psaledakis and Arshad Mohammed in Washington, Robin Emmott in Brussels, Andrius Sytas in Vilnius, Vladimir Soldatkin, Alexander Marrow and Polina Ivanova in Moscow, Joanna Plucinska in Warsaw, Thomas Escritt in Berlin; writing by Matthias Williams; editing by Mark Potter)

U.S. troops to start extended exercises in Lithuania amid tensions over Belarus

By Andrius Sytas

VILNIUS (Reuters) – U.S. troops and tanks will arrive in Lithuania on Friday for a two-month deployment near the Belarus border, but the government said the move was not a message to its Russian-backed neighbor, where protests continue over a disputed election.

In an announcement on Wednesday evening, NATO member Lithuania said U.S. troops will be moved from Poland for pre-planned military exercises. These are “defensive in nature and not directed against any neighbor, including Belarus,” it added.

However, the troops are arriving earlier and staying longer than the government had indicated before the outbreak of protests in Belarus over the Aug. 9 election that returned President Alexander Lukashenko, a key ally of Russian leader Vladimir Putin, to power.

Lukashenko has denied accusations by the Belarus opposition and Western countries that the vote was rigged and has resisted protesters’ demands to step down. He has accused NATO of a military buildup near Belarus’ borders, something the alliance denied, and has said he will ask for Russian military help if needed.

The deployment in Lithuania, which will begin on Friday and will last until November, includes 500 American troops and 40 vehicles, such as Abrams tanks and Bradley armored troop carriers, a Lithuanian army spokesman said.

On July 29, Lithuanian Defense Minister Raimundas Karoblis told BNS wire the United States would send a battalion-sized troop contingent – between 300 to 1,000 soldiers – in September, for two weeks’ training, beginning in the middle of the month.

He repeated that information on Aug. 4 in an interview with public radio LRT.

“Deployment was aligned with training schedule and training area availability,” defense minister spokeswoman Vita Ramanauskaite told Reuters.

In addition to the U.S. deployment, up to 1,000 troops and military planes from France, Italy, Germany, Poland and others will take part in an annual exercise on Sept. 14-25, the Lithuanian army spokesman said.

The ministry did not state any plans for those troops to stay beyond Sept. 25.

Karoblis said earlier this month that there was a real danger Russia would send forces to Belarus.

(Reporting by Andrius Sytas; Editing by Simon Johnson, Steve Orlofsky and Frances Kerry)

Economic clout makes China tougher challenge for U.S. than Soviet Union was – Pompeo

By Robert Muller

PRAGUE (Reuters) – China’s global economic power makes the communist country in some ways a more difficult foe to counter than the Soviet Union during the Cold War, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on a visit to the Czech Republic on Wednesday.

Pompeo called on countries around Europe to rally against the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which he said leverages its economic might to exert its influence around the world.

“What’s happening now isn’t Cold War 2.0,” Pompeo said in a speech to the Czech Senate. “The challenge of resisting the CCP threat is in some ways much more difficult.”

“The CCP is already enmeshed in our economies, in our politics, in our societies in ways the Soviet Union never was.”

The Cold War reference came after China’s ambassador to London last month warned that the United States was picking a fight with Beijing ahead of the U.S. presidential election in November.

U.S.-China ties have quickly deteriorated this year over a range of issues including Beijing’s handling of the coronavirus; telecoms-equipment maker Huawei; China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea; and the clampdown on Hong Kong.

Pompeo’s visit to the Czech Republic, part of the Soviet bloc until the 1989 democratic Velvet Revolution, marked the first stop on a swing through the region to discuss cyber and energy security.

He used the occasion to swipe at both Russian and Chinese influence and lauded officials in the central European nation of 10.7 million who took on Beijing over the past year.

He cited the Czech Republic’s efforts to set security standards for the development of 5G telecommunications networks after a government watchdog warned about using equipment made by China’s Huawei.

Pompeo and Prime Minister Andrej Babis signed a declaration on 5G security in May, but the country has not made an outright decision to ban Huawei technology. Its President Milos Zeman has been promoting closer ties with China.

Pompeo also acknowledged the chairman of the Czech Senate Milan Vystrcil, who followed through on a plan by his deceased predecessor to visit Taiwan at the end of this month, a trip that has angered China.

Pompeo said some nations in Europe would take longer to wake up to the threats, but there was a positive momentum.

“The tide has turned (in the United States), just as I see it turned here in Europe as well. The West is winning, don’t let anyone tell you about the decline of he West,” he said.

“It will take all of us… here in Prague, in Poland, in Portugal. We have the obligation to speak clearly and plainly to our people, and without fear. We must confront complex questions… and we must do so together,” he said.

(Writing by Jan Lopatka; Editing by Michael Kahn, William Maclean)

Hotline launches to help Polish women travel abroad for abortion

Hotline launches to help Polish women travel abroad for abortion
By Sonia Elks

LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Women in Poland facing some of Europe’s tightest restrictions on abortion will be offered advice and funding to travel abroad to get a termination through a new “Abortion Without Borders” initiative launched on Wednesday.

The hotline service will give advice about how to safely buy abortion pills online and refer women to medical abortion providers in Germany, the Netherlands and Britain.

Women struggling to afford the procedure will also be given financial support to make the trip, said organisers of the initiative, a collaboration between six Polish and international groups.

“Abortion Without Borders believes that getting an abortion shouldn’t depend on where someone is born and what passport they carry,” they said in a statement.

“Until everyone who needs an abortion can get one locally, we will be here.”

Poland only allows doctors to grant abortions if the fetus has a severe abnormality, if the mother’s health is threatened or if the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest.

Women’s rights groups say it is often very hard to find a doctor willing to carry out an abortion even if the conditions are met.

Only about 1,000 women get a termination in Poland each year, according to official figures, mostly for cases of fetal damage.

Abortion rights campaigners estimate tens of thousands more access abortion unofficially, either by buying pills online or travelling abroad for the procedure.

Organisers of “Abortion Without Borders” posed with suitcases at Warsaw’s main train station to highlight the situation of women forced to travel abroad to get a medical abortion.

They said all their activities were legal and there was no law in Poland criminalising women who took action to end their pregnancy or had an abortion abroad.

The initiative was launched by Polish abortion rights groups Abortion Dream Team and Kobiety w Sieci (Women on the Net), together with four other European and international groups.

Organisers said they hoped to break down stigma and uncertainty for Polish women seeking abortions and to reach those who would otherwise be unable to afford the procedure.

“The only person with the right to decide to continue or end a pregnancy is the person who is pregnant – not governments or churches or bad laws or policies,” said Justyna Wydrzynska from Kobiety w Sieci.

(Reporting by Sonia Elks @soniaelks; Editing by Claire Cozens. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)

Putin: U.S. in position to deploy new cruise missile in Europe

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a joint news conference with Finnish President Sauli Niinisto in the Presidental Palace in Helsinki, Finland, August 21, 2019. Markku Ulander/Lehtikuva/via REUTERS

HELSINKI (Reuters) – President Vladimir Putin said on Wednesday that the United States was in a position to deploy a new land-based cruise missile in Romania and Poland and that Russia considered that a threat which it would have to respond to.

The Pentagon said on Monday it had tested a conventionally-configured cruise missile that hit its target after more than 500 km (310 miles) of flight, its first such test since the demise of a landmark nuclear pact this month.

Putin, who was speaking during a visit to Helsinki, said that Washington could potentially use its launch systems in Romania and Poland to fire the missile and that Russia would have to respond in an appropriate and reciprocal manner.

(Reporting by Olesya Astakhova; Writing by Tom Balmforth; editing by Andrew Osborn)

Trump says U.S. may send 2,000 troops from Germany to Poland

U.S. President Donald Trump greets Poland's President Andrzej Duda in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, U.S., June 12, 2019. REUTERS/Leah Millis

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump said on Wednesday he is considering sending 2,000 U.S. troops from Germany to Poland, a step sought by Warsaw to deter potential aggression from Russia.

“We’re talking about it,” Trump told reporters in the Oval Office as he met with visiting Polish President Andrzej Duda.

The United States already has troops in Poland as part of a 2016 agreement with the NATO military alliance in response to Moscow’s annexation of Crimea from Poland’s eastern neighbor Ukraine in 2014.

Trump said the United States has upwards of 50,000 troops in Germany and said 2,000 of them could be sent to Poland. He said Poland is going to be spending a lot of money on a military facility for the troops.

He also said he hopes Russia “will treat Poland with respect.”

“They get hurt unfortunately too often,” Trump said of the Poles. “They’re in the middle of everything. When bad things happen it seems like Poland is the first one…I hope that Russia and Poland and Germany are going to get along,” said Trump, who has often been criticized by Democrats for being too close to Russia and President Vladimir Putin.

The U.S. president said he thought he would travel to Poland at some point, but no dates were set yet. Duda has said he would unveil a deal this week to bolster the U.S. security presence in Poland.

(Reporting by Steve Holland; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Alistair Bell)

Remains of hundreds of Jews unearthed in Nazi-era mass grave in Belarus

A soldier from a special "search battalion" of Belarus Defence Ministry takes part in the exhumation of a mass grave containing the remains of about 730 prisoners of a former Jewish ghetto, discovered at a construction site in the centre of Brest, Belarus February 26, 2019. REUTERS/Vasily Fedosenko

BREST, Belarus (Reuters) – Soldiers in Belarus have unearthed the bones of hundreds of people shot during World War Two from a mass grave discovered at the site of a ghetto where Jews lived under the Nazis.

The grave was uncovered by chance last month on a construction site in a residential area in the center of Brest near the Polish border.

A soldier from a special "search battalion" of Belarus Defence Ministry takes part in the exhumation of a mass grave containing the remains of about 730 prisoners of a former Jewish ghetto, discovered at a construction site in the centre of Brest, Belarus February 26, 2019. REUTERS/Vasily Fedosenko

A soldier from a special “search battalion” of Belarus Defence Ministry takes part in the exhumation of a mass grave containing the remains of about 730 prisoners of a former Jewish ghetto, discovered at a construction site in the centre of Brest, Belarus February 26, 2019. REUTERS/Vasily Fedosenko

Soldiers wearing white masks on Tuesday sifted through the site with spades, trowels and their gloved hands to collect the bones. They also found items such as leather shoes that had not rotted.

Dmitry Kaminsky, a soldier leading the unit, said they had exhumed 730 bodies so far, but could not be sure how many more would be found.

“It’s possible they go further under the road. We have to cut open the tarmac road. Then we’ll know,” he said.

Some of the skulls bore bullet holes, he said, suggesting the victims had been executed by a shot to the back of the head.

Belarus, a former Soviet republic, was occupied by Nazi Germany during World War Two and tens of thousands of its Jews were killed by the Nazis.

The site of the mass grave served from December 1941 to October 1942 as part of a ghetto, areas created by the Nazis to segregate Jews and sometimes other minorities from other city dwellers. Brest was part of Poland before the war.

The remains were discovered when builders began to lay the foundations for an apartment block.

Local authorities want to bury the bodies in a ceremony at a cemetery in the north of the city.

“We want to be sure that there are no more mass graves here,” said Alla Kondak, a local culture official.

(Reporting by Reuters TV; writing by Tom Balmforth; editing by Robin Pomeroy)