Prague, March 29 (RFE/RL) - Poland's communist former
state and party leader, General Wojciech Jaruzelski, went on trial
yesterday in the city of Gdansk charged with the December 1970
shooting death of workers protesting food price increases.
The case concerns the use of police and military units in
suppressing by force popular demonstrations that broke out at the end
of 1970 in the Polish coastal cities of Gdansk, Gdynia, Elblag and
Szczecin against economic policies of the communist party and its
government. As a result, 44 people died, while hundreds were wounded
and thousands injured, mostly through beatings.
According to official communist party documents, the decision to
shoot was taken by then party top leader Wladyslaw Gomulka at a
meeting attended by several other officials, including General
Jaruzelski. The documents make clear that no one protested the
decision. General Jaruzelski was Defense Minister at that time,
responsible for military operations.
Military units were directly involved in violent suppression of the
protests in all localities.
The current trial was made possible after the parliament moved four
months ago (Dec 1995) to waive a 25-year statute of limitations of
such cases. Jaruzelski and eleven other former communist party
officials and police, as well as military officers are charged with
issuing operational orders to shoot. They all pleaded not guilty.
The December 1970 events marked a watershed in Polish politics. The
shootings prompted a popular revulsion, and prompted an upheaval
within the communist party itself.
Wladyslaw Gomulka was ousted from the leadership, giving way to
Edward Gierek. Several government ministers were purged. But General
Jaruzelski preserved his job, and advanced within the party hierarchy.
The new leadership insisted on continuing the policy of economic
austerity, maintaining higher food prices. But not for long. By
mid-February 1971, a determined protest by women workers in the
industrial city of Lodz forced the communist party and government to
rescind the price increases.
This was the first time ever in the history of communist rule in
Poland that the authorities were forced openly to abandon their
policies under popular pressure. Further workers protests in 1976 and
1980-1981 completely destroyed the authority of the communist party
and its government. In 1981, their power was barely saved when they
imposed martial law to contain popular revolt spearheaded by
Solidarity, the independent labor union. Thousands were arrested.
Military units were again used to suppress protests, in which nine
miners were shot to death while defending their workplace.
In 1989, the communist were forced to abandon control over the
country, when workers' upheavals paved the way for the first free
General Jaruzelski presided over the imposition of martial law as
head of both the party and the government. Last month, a special
parliamentary commission recommended that charges that he violated
the constitution by imposing martial law not be pursued. The case of
dead miners is still pending.
The current trial in Gdansk was postponed yesterday at the request
of the defense. Jaruzelski's lawyers also asked that his case be
separated from that of the others and sent to the State Tribunal, the
court empowered to deal with high-ranking state officials.
The prosecutors argued against. They said that the tribunal takes
cases only after a request by the parliament, and, as the parliament
is dominated by post-communists, it is unlikely Jaruzelski's
indictment would be supported there.
The court is to rule on this next month. The trial itself may last