Twenty-seven years after arresting tens of thousands and unleashing tanks onto the streets to smother opposition to Communist rule, Poland’s last Communist leader is facing justice. Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski, now 85, strode into a Warsaw court last week wearing his large, signature tinted glasses to face charges he and six co-defendants (all in their 80s) violated the constitution by imposing martial law in 1981. They are charged with “Communist crimes” and “directing a criminal organization,” in the form of a military council that inflicted the crackdown. The latter is a crafty legal move more fitting for mobsters, but believed to be the only way of trying the officials.
The trial marks a first for Poland: never before has the country taken its Communist ex-leaders to task for imposing martial law. If convicted, the stoic former prime minister and minister of defence could spend 10 years in prison. Jaruzelski’s image appeared on television screens early on the morning of Dec. 13, 1981, announcing that Poland’s march toward freedom under the Solidarity trade union was over. As the self-appointed head of the Military Council for National Salvation, he declared martial law—under intense pressure from the irate Soviets.
Poland’s borders were closed, followed by a curfew, strict censorship, the suspension of the right to strike or associate, and a ban on gasoline sales for private cars.
Mass arrests ensued, and as many as 100 people were killed. Jaruzelski has insisted his actions were necessary to prevent a Soviet invasion. But to Poles, martial law was a blatant re-instituting of Communist power, which remained in effect until Eastern Europe’s Soviet-era regimes crumbled in 1989. The trial was suspended until Sept. 25, when the defendants will enter a plea. M
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