THE last Communist leader of Poland has denied crimes connected to his decision to use martial law to crush Lech Walesa's Solidarity movement in 1981.
General Wojciech Jaruzelski and seven leading figures from his government are standing trial on charges of illegally imposing martial law and significant human rights violations.
Dozens died and hundreds were imprisoned after the general declared a "state of war" in December 1981 with the intention of destroying Solidarity, which had become a brazen challenge to Communist hegemony throughout the Warsaw Pact.
Yesterday, wearing a grey suit and his trademark dark glasses, 85-year-old Jaruzelski said: "I plead not guilty and reject the unfounded allegations formulated by the prosecutor."
He branded the trial, which has been delayed many times due to his poor health, as biased and politically motivated. But, showing signs of remorse, he told the court: "I've said it before and I repeat – I regret, I'm sorry and I ask for your forgiveness."
The former Polish leader also said the 1981 crackdown had been unavoidable. "I have constantly said that martial law saved Poland from looming catastrophe," he said. Conceding it was "evil", he added that it "was a far lesser evil than what would have happened without it".
If found guilty, he could face up to ten years in jail, but experts argue it is unlikely he will see the inside of a prison owing to his age and ill health.
Jaruzelski has always maintained that, by crushing Solidarity, he had saved Poland from a Soviet invasion, similar to those experienced by Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968. Some historians, but not all, have disputed this claim, arguing that the Soviet Union would not have risked a bloody and bitter battle for Poland. They argue that the general used the spectre of an invasion as an excuse to attack Solidarity.
Critics within Poland have often accused the retired soldier of being nothing more than a "Russian in Polish uniform", an accusation bitterly resented by Jaruzelski, who, with his family, was deported by the Soviets in 1940 to Siberia, where he became a slave labourer.
His few supporters argue that Poland should credit Jaruzelski for re-engaging with Solidarity in the late 1980s, and pursuing a path of reform.
The trial will add further woe to Jaruzelski, who, after Poland's negotiated transition from one-party state to democracy in 1989, had, for the most part, enjoyed a relatively peaceful life. But fuelled by a widespread feeling that for too long the perpetrators of Communist oppression have gone unpunished, there have been a number of moves to seek some form of justice. This month, the government said it intended to slash Jaruzelski's generous pension, and those of other former military leaders.
The former president has also had to fight off attempts by his home's former owners to have him evicted.
He is also standing trial for crimes related to the shooting dead of 40 workers in Gdansk in 1970, when he was defence minister.
DURING martial law, peaceful pro-democracy movements were banned and their leaders, including Lech Walesa, detained overnight. Poles awoke on the morning of 13 December, 1981, to find thousands of soldiers patrolling the streets. A curfew was imposed, borders were sealed, airports were closed, and road access to main cities was restricted.
During the initial imposition of martial law, several dozen people were killed. A Polish parliamentary commission in the years 1989-91 arrived at a figure of over 90 deaths. In the deadliest incident, nine people were killed in Wujek coalmine.