In the run-up to Pope John Paul II’s June visit, Poland’s military government indicated that martial law might be lifted on July 22, the country’s national holiday, if the citizens behaved themselves. Last week, whether as a reward for good conduct during the papal tour or as a result of a secret deal with the Pope, the authorities seemed poised to honor their pledge. In all likelihood, the Polish parliament (Sejm) will meet this week to announce a date for a formal end to army rule and an amnesty for several hundred dissidents jailed for martial law offences. The timing of the announcement—July 22 marks the liberation of part of eastern Poland from German occupation in 1944—was clearly designed to achieve symbolic impact. But the practical effects may also be more symbolic than real.
Sitting in special session last week, the Sejm gave a first reading to four amendments to the constitution giving a civilian government wider powers—including the right to declare a state of emergency and retain censorship—to deal with internal unrest. Parliamentary sources said that once the Sejm had approved the provisions at a two-day session starting July 20, head of state Henryk Jablonski would announce the lifting of martial law. The Sejm met amid other signs of an imminent decision.
The all-powerful Polish Communist Party’s Politburo endorsed the lifting of the remaining restrictions imposed on Dec. 13, 1981. (Some restraints were eased last December.) The U.S. state department, informed by Warsaw that military rule was in its last days, indicated that Washington might ease sanctions imposed in opposition to martial law if the Polish authorities released a significant number of political prisoners.
Whether martial law is repealed or not, Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski’s harsh “military council of national salvation” will already have lasted three months longer than the 16-month “Solidarity era,” which brought an unprecedented relaxation of Communist rule. Jaruzelski’s attempts to reverse that process have cost the lives of at least 20 protesters, most of them killed in street clashes with security forces. Roughly 11,000 supporters of the Solidarity trade union have been interned at one time or another, and 4,000 people have been jailed
for infringing martial law regulations. The government maintains that only about 700 are still behind bars. But official U.S. sources, charging that many political offenders had been listed as common-law criminals, put the figure closer to 4,000.
The suspension of martial law at the end of 1982 meant that many of its provisions—dealing with the distribution of antigovernment leaflets and public disorder—were transferred to the nation’s penal code. The Sejm last week carried that process a step further, severely limiting the real effect of any relaxation. For the Polish people the sole tangible gains may be limited to the right, once again, to hold public meetings without first obtaining official permission and wider freedom to travel abroad. A return to civilian rule would also mean the return to barracks of the army “commissars,” who have monitored working efficiency in Poland.
However, any amnesty is unlikely to apply to the 12 leading activists who face charges of plotting to overthrow the state. Western observers in Warsaw said the regime might defer a decision on when to bring them to trial in order to keep their followers from demonstrating. But that would be the limit of official generosity. The status of jailed activists seems symbolic of the nation as a whole. Even without martial law, the Polish people will still be the hostages of their rulers.
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