WARSAW, Poland — A Polish court on Thursday handed a two-year suspended prison term to a communist-era interior minister for his role in implementing martial law in Poland in 1981.
The verdict is the latest effort by democratic Poland to hold communist-era officials accountable for abuses during their rule.
The Warsaw Provincial Court found retired Gen. Czeslaw Kiszczak guilty on charges of membership in an armed criminal group that illegally declared the clampdown, aimed at crushing the Solidarity freedom movement, and violated the freedom of many Poles. The 86-year-old Kiszczak was absent from court.
Former president and Solidarity founder, Lech Walesa, reacted by saying that “full justice is not possible,” and that the main point of such trials is “not to punish, but to draw conclusions for the future.”
“It is important that the matter was closed and we can move on,” said the 1983 Nobel Peace Laureate.
The reading of the verdict was delayed by 90 minutes when a group of unruly activists with pictures of martial law victims and chants of “Murderer” filled the courtroom before the session. The court ordered the leader of the disturbance, former lawmaker Adam Slomka, to serve a 14-day prison term for obstructing the proceedings.
In its ruling, the three-judge panel also acquitted former communist party leader Stanislaw Kania, because he resigned the position months before martial law was declared, and dropped the charges against a top party member, Eugenia Kempara, who did not have any active role in preparing the move.
The court said that Kiszczak, while a member of the then-communist government, used the state structures and armed forces to have thousands of Solidarity freedom movement activists imprisoned and beaten up, in some cases. Some 100 people lost their lives, among them nine miners, shot by the police, when they protested the clampdown.
Kiszczak’s prison term was suspended for five years and is subject to appeal.
He had demanded the charges be dropped, arguing that he considered the issue of responsibility for martial law closed after a special parliamentary commission decided in 1996 it did not qualify for a special court for top leaders, the State Tribunal.
The trial opened in 2008, after investigators of the state National Remembrance Institute charged Kiszczak, former communist leader Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski and seven others with breaking the law when they declared martial law on Dec. 13, 1981. It was lifted in late 1983.
Jaruzelski, 88, who is sick with cancer, was excluded from the case due to ill health last summer, as were three others. Two other defendants have died.
Despite the martial law attempt, Solidarity nonetheless prevailed and led the way to a peaceful transfer to democracy in 1989.
Jaruzelski argues the clampdown prevented Soviet intervention. He says Moscow was planning to invade, to crush Solidarity, seeing it a source of potential trouble and of Poland’s economic downturn at the time.
In a separate trial last year, Kiszczak was acquitted on charges of involvement in the deaths of the nine miners who protested martial law in the Wujek coal mine.