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 parliamentary elections.
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 for years.