13 Sep 2008

Poland's former leader on trial over martial law

11:52 am on 13 September 2008

Poland's last communist leader, General Wojciech Jaruzelski, and seven other Soviet-era officials went on trial on Friday over the declaration of martial law more than a quarter of a century ago.

Poland's National Remembrance Institute accuses the now elderly defendants of violating the law and flouting human rights with the 1981 decision, which led to the deaths of dozens of people and the jailing of hundreds more.

Seven of the defendants, including the 85-year-old Jaruzelski and the former Communist Party first secretary, Stanislaw Kania, appeared in the Warsaw courtroom.

The eighth, former internal affairs minister Czeslaw Kiszczak, was absent due to medical reasons.

The court rejected a request from Mr Jaruzelski and the other defendants to have the full 500-page indictment read out.

The defendants deny the accusations, saying they acted out of "higher necessity" to silence the anti-communist Solidarity trade union and avert a threatened Soviet invasion of Poland.

Solidarity, led by shipyard electrician and later Nobel Peace Laureate Lech Walesa, played a leading role in overthrowing communism in Poland eight years later.

General Jaruzelski has often argued that the imposition of martial law spared Poland the bloody Soviet intervention suffered by Hungary in 1956 and the then-Czechoslovakia in 1968.

The court set the next hearing in the case for 25 September.