Torture trial lifts lid on Poland's Stalinism

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THE MOST Adam Humer will admit to is that he ordered his subordinates to use force against political prisoners, and that he himself sometimes slapped prisoners or abused them verbally.

But the old men and women who sit in the front rows of the Warsaw court where he is on trial believe they know better. They regard him as one of the most evil security policemen, who tortured and killed political prisoners in Poland's Stalinist period.

The trial of Mr Humer, 76, a seemingly unrepentant Communist, and 13 of his former colleagues, is the most important case dealing with the repression of the late 1940s and early 1950s to reach Poland's courts since the Communists lost power in 1989. And it may be the last. Poland's left-wing government, a coalition of former Communists who won last September's elections, shows little inclination to take up such cases, and Poles themselves are divided over whether to rake over events that occurred more than 40 years ago.

But Mr Humer's trial, prepared before the present government came to power, is revealing a mass of detail about the systematic brutality of Poland's Soviet-supervised secret police in Stalinist times. According to the state prosecutor, prisoners were forced to kneel on boards with nails sticking out, squat on the legs of overturned stools and had water poured through their nostrils. Policemen whipped and clubbed prisoners, burnt them with irons and slammed doors on their fingers.

Wlodzimierz Minchberg, who was 19 when he was arrested in 1948, has attended every day since the trial opened in September. 'It was completely normal for the security police to beat prisoners. You entered the room, sat down and they hit you as their way of saying hello,' he recalled.

The most serious charge against Mr Humer, who ran the investigation department of the Public Security Ministry during the repression, is that he tortured to death a student, Tadeusz Labedzki, in 1946. He faces up to 10 years in prison if convicted. Labedzki was one of tens of thousands of Poles who resisted the Soviet imposition of Communism in an armed struggle that lasted into the 1950s. Mr Humer denies the charge, but admits he attended the student's funeral, organised by the police in secret.

Poland's Stalinist experience, fearful though it was, lacked the all-encompassing ferocity of repression elsewhere in Eastern Europe. Moreover, Poles have been acquainted for some years with many of the gruesome details. In 1988, Polityka magazine published a Communist Party report, prepared in 1957, that spelt out how political prisoners were made to stand naked near open cell windows in winter and were woken up at night and forced to sprint up stairs.

This document revealed that 19 Polish army officers had been executed after fraudulent trials organised by Soviet agents operating in Poland's army intelligence. One of Mr Humer's co-defendants, Roman Laszkiewicz, is a former security policeman who held Soviet citizenship. Denying the charge of physical and moral abuse of prisoners, he told the court: 'We were not Gestapo.'

The trial has attracted relatively little attention in the Polish press, reflecting a widespread view that Poland has more pressing matters on its hands, such as sustaining economic reform and ensuring its national security at a time of rising uncertainty in Europe. On the latter point the trial retains a certain sensitivity, since it is exposing the crimes of Poland's Soviet-backed Communists at a time when Communists and nationalists with a Soviet-era mentality are in the ascendant in Russia.