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Poland: Former Communists Absolved Of Responsibility For Martial Law

  • Jan de Weydenthal

Prague, 24 October 1996 (RFE/RL) -- The Polish parliament yesterday voted by a substantial majority (211 to 146 with 60 abstentions) that former communist leaders, including the party's head, General Wojciech Jaruzelski, should not face prosecution for the imposition of martial law in December 1981.

The vote ended a protracted parliamentary investigation into whether the decision, which suspended civil rights for several years and paralyzed established public institutions, violated the law. About a hundred or so opposition activists were killed and thousands jailed without trial during martial law. Many others were forced to leave the country.

Jaruzelski and other communist officials have consistently argued that their decision to impose martial law was prompted by fears of a Soviet military intervention. They have said that the Soviet Union was alarmed by the rise of Solidarity. That was the labor and public mass movement that sprung from workers' strikes and set out to introduce democratic changes in the communist system of government in Poland. They have maintained that, although martial law might have represented political "evil," it was a "lesser evil" than a Soviet assault.

Their critics rebut those arguments. They have said there was no danger of any direct Soviet intervention at the time of imposition of martial law. The assertion is supported by Soviet archival documents provided to Polish investigators by Russian authorities. The documents suggest that the Polish communists initiated, perfected and implemented the rigors of martial law at their own volition.

Five years ago, parliament set up a special committee to establish facts, leaving the judgment to proper legal authorities. Post-communist elements were in the minority then. But three years ago, post-communist parties won the elections, gaining a majority of seats in the parliament. Earlier this year, the investigatory committee, already dominated by the post-communists, recommended that the inquiry be dropped. The current vote follows this recommendation.

Speaking after the vote, Jozef Oleksy, head of the post-communist Democratic Left Alliance, said that the parliament's decision "closes and heals historic wounds." Jaruzelski declared himself satisfied. And he reiterated his long-standing argument that the imposition of martial law "was a lesser evil than the threatening -- internal and external -- catastrophe."

But Jan Rulewski, former Solidarity activist and parliamentary opposition deputy, said that the decision was offensive to many victims of martial law. It is a "signal for millions of Poles who opposed the (Communist) regime and the martial law," he said, "that they were wrong."

And Henryk Wujec, another opposition deputy who spent time in jail during martial law, emphasized that the former communist leaders should "stand a fair trial" fully to establish their guilt or innocence. Wujec said that the parliamentary decision does not close the case. "We will come back to the issue," he said, "after the parliamentary elections." The new elections are to take place next year.

As for Jaruzelski, he is still facing criminal proceedings resulting from armed assaults against striking workers in Poland's coastal cities in December 1970. Dozens of unarmed workers were massacred then by army troops. Jaruzelski served as the communist minister of national defense then, directing the military action in defense of party policies. He says he is innocent of any crimes or abuses of power committed at that time.