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Fears that Polish democracy is in danger of withering under its recently installed government prompted thousands of Poles to take to the streets of Warsaw on Saturday demanding that their rights be protected.

"We will not let our freedoms be taken away," thundered a member of the Committee for the Defence of Democracy (KOD) as the rally started.

Poland's conservative government, which took office in November, has been at loggerheads ever since with the country's liberals, as well as with the European Union, which in January launched an investigation into whether recent changes in Polish law clash with EU values.

Areas of concern include: reforms of the Constitutional Court that seem designed to weaken its independence; expansion of surveillance operations; and a change in the state media law that gives the government more say in naming the heads of media companies.

A number of opposition politicians joined the march Saturday, the first time they have done so despite several similar protests in recent months.

"This will be a long march, but we are ready to take on these challenges," said former foreign minister and head of the centre-left Civic Platform party, Grzegorz Schetyna. The party was ousted from power last year.

"There have been 100 days of violations of the law and I fear worse is yet to come," said Ryszard Petru, head of the centre-left Nowoczesna party.

The protesters also made a point of saying they stand behind former president and union leader Lech Walesa, who has recently been in headlines after the discovery of new documents that allegedly say he was a communist-era informant, charges Walesa denies.

If proven true, the allegations tarnish the image of a man seen by many as one of the founding fathers of modern Poland.

"In my worst dreams, I never foresaw that, after years of fighting for freedom and after repression and arrests, that the apparatus of a democratic state would turn against us, the persecuted opponents of the communist system," wrote Walesa in a statement that was read aloud to the demonstrators by KOD member Mateusz Kijowski.

The protesters - who are rallying under the motto 'We, the people' - received backing from leading liberal newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza, where chief editor Jaroslav Kurski wrote an editorial supporting them.

"'We, the people' - that is those of us who are not willing to come to terms with the destruction of Polish democracy," he wrote. "We are experiencing the worst times for these people since 1989. In 100 days, the [Law and Justice party] PiS has built up little, but destroyed much."

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