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Communists Absolved of Responsibility for Polish Martial Law

Prague, Feb. 14 (RFE/RL) - This was to be expected. And it happened. A special Polish parliamentary committee yesterday recommended that former communist leaders, including the party's head General Wojciech Jaruzelski, should not face prosecution for the forcible imposition of martial law in December 1981.

Martial law resulted in the suspension for several years of all civic rights and paralyzed the operations of established public institutions. Set up in December 1991, the committee has been investigating whether the decision violated the Polish constitution.

The committee's work was initially designed to establish facts, leaving the judgment to proper legal authorities. But in the end, the outcome appears basically political.

The committee has recently been dominated by the post-communists and their Peasant Party allies (13 deputies), with opposition in minority (five deputies). The vote reflected this division.

The leftist majority voted almost unanimously, with only one member abstaining, to ask the parliament to discontinue the proceedings. The opposition was united in calling for sending the case to the special court empowered to judge top state officials.

Jaruzelski and other communist leaders have consistently argued that their decision to impose martial law was prompted by fears of an impending Soviet military intervention. They have said that the Soviet Union was alarmed by the rise of Solidarity, the mass labor and public movement sprung from workers' strikes, but determined to introduce democratic changes into the communist system of government in Poland. And they have maintained that, while martial law might have represented political "evil," it was a "lesser evil" than Soviet intervention.

Their critics have refuted those arguments. They said that there was no danger of any direct Soviet intervention in Poland at the time of the imposition of martial law. They emphasize that Moscow's apparent unwillingness to become entangled in Poland has been confirmed by Soviet archival documents, some of which were provided to Polish investigators by Russian authorities.

Instead, the critics say that the Soviet documents show that Polish communists might have themselves asked Moscow to threaten Poland with intervention to pacify Solidarity's demands. And they also argue that the Polish communist leaders never attempted to come to terms with the public's demands for democracy, insisting on the defense of the system which give them a monopoly on power. And they say that the communists were ready to break the law to preserve their political interests and positions. The critics say that this alone is the sufficient ground for political condemnation and legal punishment.

The martial law regime extended over almost two years. It formally ended in July 1983, but its consequences in limiting public liberties lasted until the fall of communism in 1989. During those years, thousands were arrested or kept in jail without trial, dozens lost their lives, and millions were affected by rigors and restrictions imposed by the communist authorities.

Speaking to reporters yesterday, Jaruzelski said that the committee's decision "meant an objective, just and honest assessment of the December 1981 event."

Former president and historical Solidarity leader Lech Walesa disagreed. Commenting on the case yesterday, Walesa noted that "the makeup of the committee and the current political setup do not allow for an honest judgment of martial law."

For his part, chairman of the committee, post-communist deputy and current minister of education Jerzy Wiatr said that the case was "the most difficult in Poland's parliamentary history. The committee was divided on this issue, but so is the parliament and society as a whole."

The parliament, in which the post-communists and their allies have a large majority of seats, is almost certain to accept the committee's recommendation. Jaruzelski and his aides are very likely to be absolved of any responsibility.

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