UPDATE 1-Abortion rights protests block city streets across Poland

(Adds details, government order)

WARSAW, Oct 26 (Reuters) - Tens of thousands of Poles blocked city streets in cars, on bicycles and on foot on Monday on the fifth day of protests against a Constitutional Court ruling that amounts to a near-total ban on abortion in the predominantly Catholic country.

Carrying banners reading "Enough," "I won't be your martyr" and "I want choice, not terror," protesters gathered in several dozen towns and cities in defiance of coronavirus restrictions.

"I will be here until the end," said Piotr Wybanski, 31, standing in one of Warsaw's main thoroughfares. "I don't care if it means a week, a month, three months or three years. I will protest here day after day."

The court ruling last Thursday fueled an unprecedented backlash against the Roman Catholic Church in Poland, which is seen as having close links with the conservative nationalist Law and Justice (PiS) government.

It has also heightened criticism of PiS, which came to power five years ago on a promise to instill more traditional values.

After the ruling goes into effect, abortion will be banned in the case of fetal abnormalities and will be legal only in the case of rape, incest or a threat to the woman's health.

Critics say the court has acted on behalf of the party, which has in the past stepped back from efforts to tighten abortion rules. PiS denies that.

The Constitutional Court is part of the government's sweeping overhaul of the justice system which the European Commission says subverts the rule of law by politicizing courts.

MILITARY POLICE

Crowds also gathered again near the house of PiS leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski in an affluent Warsaw neighborhood, as police in vans with flashing lights kept them away and a helicopter hovered overhead.

The government said military police would be called in to help enforce pandemic rules, which include an obligation to wear face masks in public, from Wednesday. But the defense ministry said on Twitter the decision was not connected with the protests.

The government has called for a halt to the protests because of a rising number of coronavirus cases overwhelming the health care system, though except for isolated scuffles with the police the protests have been largely peaceful.

"What's happening in recent days is absolutely unacceptable," Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki's chief of staff, Michal Dworczyk, told private radio RMF. "Pandemic rules are being broken."

Poland recorded 10,241 new coronavirus cases on Monday, compared with a record of 13,632 on Friday.

Parliament is due to discuss the impact of the court ruling on the government's aid program for families with disabled children on Tuesday.

More protests are planned across Poland later this week, including a mass gathering in Warsaw on Friday. (Additional reporting by Anna Wlodarczak-Semczuk and Jakub Stezycki Writing by Justyna Pawlak Editing by Nick Macfie and David Holmes)

10/26/2020 18:53

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