Prague, March 13 (RFE/RL) - A Polish court last week (Mar 8) sentenced to prison terms several (12) Stalinist-era policemen, convicting them of torturing political opponents of communism.
The verdict is important because it formally condemned methods used by the communists to secure control over the public, and affirmed that such methods would not go unpunished in a democratic society.
The case also stands out because it provided a very rare instance when former communist officials were punished for having mistreated ordinary people.
In a series of earlier trials of Stalinist henchmen, staged in several Central European countries (Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland) during the late 1950's and the early 1960's, the accused stood charged of having persecuted basically other communists.
The main defendant in the current Polish case, Colonel Adam Humer, is a former deputy head of the investigating department in the infamous Ministry of Public Security.
Several ranking officials in the communist security service, including Humer's immediate superior, Colonel Jacek Rozanski, were tried and sentenced in the 1950's. Most of them gained early release after only a short time in prison. Rozanski himself died a few years ago in Warsaw. The ministry was formally dissolved in 1954, but its functions - and a large number of its staff - were incorporated into the Interior Ministry, which quickly acquired a notoriety of its own.
Humer was found guilty of repeatedly beating and torturing political prisoners during the 1940's and the 1950's. He was sentenced to nine years in prison. His eleven companions, all middle-level communist secret police interrogators, were sentenced to between two-and-eight years in prison on the same charges.
Following the communist takeover in Poland in 1944, several hundred thousand people were persecuted for suspected or real opposition to the system of government imposed with the help of the Soviet troops. Thousands were executed, many without formal trials.
The Warsaw verdict culminated a long trial extending for almost three years. Proceedings were made difficult by frequent postponements, largely owing to advanced age and fragile health of both the defendants and witnesses. Several died during the trial.
The length of the trial served to mute the drama of the proceedings. Even the most graphic descriptions of torture tend to pale when repeated over constantly interrupted sessions, and the public interest tends to decline as well.
In a vaguely similar case in Hungary, several former communist policemen were acquitted last year of charges that they had fired at political demonstrators during the 1956 uprising. The Hungarian court found it too difficult to establish without a doubt that the crimes had been committed by the accused.
No other Central European country has yet attempted to prosecute former Stalinist-era officials for crimes against ordinary people.
None of the Polish defendants showed any remorse during the proceedings. None of them confessed. All maintained that generally harsh methods had been necessary to defend "the people's power" and the "authority" of the communist government.
Perhaps because of that, not many people in Warsaw expected prison sentences. But the unexpected finally happened.
The verdict is certain to be appealed. In the meantime, none of the defendants is likely to go to jail, pending the conclusion of the appeal. This is certain to take time, a long time.
But whether they serve their terms or not, The trial has already confirmed the important principle that civilized society will not tolerate indiscriminate mistreatment of political opponents. This, in itself, has determined the trial's major significance.