His face twitched uncontrollably and he stammered repeatedly. In fact, the defendant’s stutter was so pronounced that he testified for only eight minutes before the court adjourned. But in that brief period last week, Polish secret policeman Waldemar Chmielewski, 29, dramatically recounted his role in the brutal kidnapping and murder of Rev. Jerzy Popieluszko, 37, a Roman Catholic priest and determined defender of the outlawed trade union Solidarity. Then, as scores of spectators in the provincial courtroom in Torun watched tensely, the former officer of Poland’s interior ministry added that he had taken part in the abduction believing that senior government officials had approved the plan. Said a remorseful Chmielewski: “It was a long nightmare.”
Aides to Polish leader Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski have stood by their claim that the Oct. 19 murder of the militantly anti-Communist Popieluszko was part of a wider plot to destabilize the Warsaw government. According to the officials, Communist party hard-liners— known as “concrete heads”—planned
the killing in order to destroy Jaruzelski’s credibility, stir public unrest and provoke a government assault on the opposition. As a result, the Popieluszko case—perhaps the most important trial in postwar Poland—is a crucial challenge for Jaruzelski. It will test his strength against rival factions both within his own party and inside the Kremlin, as well as his policy of seeking accommodation with the Catholic church and some political opponents.
That the trial is taking place at all is a stunning development. It is unprecedented for security police in Communist countries to be tried in public, appearing worldwide on television. Said Adam Michnik, one of Poland’s leading intellectuals: “This is the first time that a security police killing has been revealed in all its nakedness. It is something we are willing to pay a high price to achieve.” In effect, Jaruzelski is gambling that, 18 months after he lifted martial law, disclosure of the murder details will increase public approval of his government’s methods while discrediting his hard-line opponents.
Still, there was little hard evidence to support some observers’ contentions that a wider conspiracy to silence Popieluszko existed. Neither Chmielewski nor
fellow secret policeman Leszek Pekala—two of four former officers charged in connection with the crime—have been willing or able to identify the highlevel authority who supposedly gave the order for the priest’s abduction and subsequent murder. And as long as the ultimate architects of the plot remain unnamed, many Poles may continue to suspect their government of engineering a coverup of the killing, despite the Marxist regime’s repeated protestations that it has nothing to hide.
According to the prosecution’s case, Pekala and Chmielewski, both lieutenants, were recruited by Security Police Capt. Grzegorz Piotrowski, 33, to frighten the priest into withdrawing his support for Solidarity and softening his fiercely nationalistic sermons. The fourth accused man, Col. Adam Pietruszka, 47, supervised the three officers and he is charged with aiding and abetting the murder. In his testimony, Pekala said he was told not to worry about the consequences because Piotrowski’s superiors had already approved the plan—even if it meant killing the priest. Declared prosecutor Leszek Pietrasinski: “They [the accused men] thought that Popieluszko was a dangerous man. They thought they would be promoted
instead of being blamed.”
The conspirators seized Popieluszko as he returned to Warsaw after delivering a lecture near Torun. Although his driver later fled to safety, the priest was gagged and tied up with a plastic rope and his body was locked in the trunk of the kidnappers’ car. When Popieluszko tried to escape by forcing the lid of the trunk open, his abductors beat him fiercely with a club and fastened the rope around his neck, wrists and knees so that any attempt to flee would result in strangulation.
Finally, near a dam on the Vistula River, 130 km northwest of Warsaw, Piotrowski ordered Pekala to tie a sack of rocks to the priest’s feet. The two junior officers then suggested that Popieluszko be left in the forest, but the captain replied: “No. Only the water.” Recalled Pekala: “I realized then that the priest would have to die. I was helpless. I wondered how it could have come to this. But I told myself I had to continue to obey orders.”
Pekala’s graphic testimony left unanswered the crucial question of who ordered the operation. During interrogations after his arrest on Oct. 24, Pekala said that Piotrowski had told him that the mission was supported by an unidentified deputy interior minister. But in court the defendant presented a different case. Said Pekala: “One of the deputy ministers had spoken of interrupting Popieluszko’s activities, and I mistakenly interpreted this as meaning they wanted illegal action.”
Chmielewski, too, claimed that he did
not know who had authorized the murder. He said that while they were planning the abduction, he had asked Piotrowski what would happen if the frail priest died. He testified that Piotrowski then consulted Col. Pietruszka, deputy director of the interior ministry branch responsible for surveillance of the church. Pietruszka responded several days later by saying that there was “authorization to act” regardless of the outcome. Asked about the delay in receiving a reply, Chmielewski testified: “He [Pietruszka] had to get in touch with the top ranks. By the top I understood it to mean one of the directors or one of the deputy ministers.”
For his part, Pietruszka denied any knowledge of the affair, describing the action—in accord with the government’s own position—as a provocation aimed at undermining Jaruzelski.
Asa result, the key to the case appears to be Piotrowski, who was expected to take the stand this week. Most Poles insist that, under the Communist system, few officers at Piotrowski’s level would act without the sanction of a superior.
But now, having confessed to the murder,
Piotrowski must prove that he was acting on
specific instructions from higher authority. Indeed, many court observers contend that if a wider conspiracy is established, it will be because Piotrowski decides to name the individuals who issued the orders. It may be in his interest to do just that: if convicted, the defendants face a minimum eight years in prison and, conceivably, the death penalty.
Speculation about the identities of possible leaders of the plot centred increasingly on Miroslaw Milewski, 56, a hard-liner whom Jaruzelski dismissed as interior minister in 1981. Milewski, still a Politburo member, is dissatisfied with what he considers to be Jaruzelski’s lenient handling of dissidents. Together with two other senior party members, Albin Siwak and Tadeusz Grabski, Milewski is also viewed as an opponent of the Polish leader’s liberal economic reforms, including his policy of telling Poles openly about the nation’s economic problems. Last November, in the aftermath of the Popieluszko killing, Jaruzelski dismissed Brig.-Gen. Zenon Platek, an acting deputy interior minister—and one of Milewski’s trustees—for “lack of supervision” in the affair. Jaruzelski also assumed responsibility within the Politburo for the security forces and the police.
Whatever the outcome in Torun, the general will likely continue to pursue his policies. His position is precarious, because he must appear tough enough to satisfy the “concrete heads” that he is firmly in control and conciliatory enough to nurture a measure of public confidence. At the same time, he has to maintain the goodwill of Western nations that supply aid and credits to Poland. Many Poles expect the Torun court to blame the junior officers and exonerate Pietruszka and anyone senior to him in the chain of command.
The widespread cynicism is partly a result of an incident in May, 1983. Then, Solidarity supporter Grzegorz Przemyk, the 19-year-old son of poetess Barbara Sadowska, died from beatings administered in police custody. The unpublicized trial of his killers ended with sentences to the ambulance men who took him to hospital, and acquittals for the police. Przemyk lies in the burial grounds of Warsaw’s St. Stanislaw Kostka Church, not far from where Father Popieluszko is buried.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.