Jaruzelski on trial for 1970 Gdansk killings

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Europe Editor

A Polish court opened proceedings yesterday against the country's last Communist leader, Wojciech Jaruzelski, who has been indicted over the killing of at least 44 people during workers' protests in December 1970.

Mr Jaruzelski, 72, a retired general, was Poland's defence minister when the then Communist authorities ordered the army and police to shoot at civilians who were demonstrating against food price rises in Gdansk and other Baltic ports.

The Gdansk provincial court, granting Mr Jaruzelski's defence lawyers a request for more time to study the case, decided to reconvene in three months. The court also agreed to consider Mr Jaruzelski's request that the trial be turned over to Poland's State Tribunal, a body that handles cases involving senior government officials.

The former president and Communist Party leader is best remembered abroad for his declaration of martial law in December 1981, to suppress Solidarity, the mass movement whose leaders eventually restored democracy in Poland in 1989 - paradoxically, with Mr Jaruzelski's co-operation.

A Polish parliamentary committee, possibly influenced by his own view that he acted to prevent a Soviet invasion, recommended last month that Mr Jaruzelski should not stand trial for imposing martial law.

For many Poles, the 1970 killings are as terrible a memory as the declaration of martial law. The Communist authorities initially tried to conceal the truth, partly by arranging secret, night-time burials of the dead workers.

But the events prepared the ground for the emergence of Solidarity in 1980 as the first free trade union in Communist Eastern Europe. Lech Walesa, the former Solidarity leader and first post-Communist president of Poland, used to say the 1970 killings on the Baltic coast were the decisive moment leading to his transformation from a humble shipyard electrician in Gdansk into a world-famous opposition leader.

Several dozen Solidarity supporters stood in front of the court yesterday, holding up banners reading "Communist crimes - genocide crimes" and demanding punishment for Mr Jaruzelski and 11 officials accused of instigating the shootings. "Revenge is not the purpose of this trial. It should restore trust in the justice system," Solidarity's leader in Gdansk, Jacek Rybicki, told the newspaper Zycie Warszawy.

Among those accused with Mr Jaruzelski are a former interior minister, a former deputy prime minister and nine former army and security police officers. Poland's reformed Communists, who were returned to power in free elections in 1993, reject opposition charges that they have sought to delay the case going to trial.

Polish lawyers say the trial could be the biggest in the nation's history, with 1,000 witnesses likely to be summoned.

An appeal court last week set aside the acquittal of two generals held responsible for the murder in 1984 of the popular pro-Solidarity priest, Father Jerzy Popieluszko.