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Polish Communist Chief on Trial

May 15, 2001

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WARSAW, Poland (AP) _ Poland’s last communist leader, Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski, went on trial Tuesday to face charges that he ordered the shooting deaths of 44 shipyard workers in 1970.

Forty-four workers were killed and more than 1,000 were injured while protesting price increases in the Baltic coast cities of Gdynia, Gdansk, Szczecin and Elblag on Dec. 17, 1970. Jaruzelski, who was defense minister at the time, is charged with ordering the military to fire.

Jaruzelski, who turns 78 in July, maintains he is innocent, but he and nine other defendants each could get 25 years if convicted.

The trial is part of Poland’s long-running efforts to call the old communist regime to account for its crimes. An initial investigation by the communist regime was dropped, and there was never a trial in a communist court.

Jaruzelski was Poland’s leader from 1981, when he imposed martial law to crack down on the anti-communist Solidarity movement, until 1989, the year communist rule was toppled.

The retired general’s original trial opened in Gdansk in 1996, but he and several others were excluded for health reasons and the proceedings were later suspended.

In 1999, Poland’s Supreme Court ordered a new trial and moved it to Warsaw, where Jaruzelski lives and has a state-financed office.

Doctors are expected to keep a close watch on the 77-year-old retired general, and the court has agreed to limit hearings to three or four hours.

Jaruzelski reportedly suffers from back and kidney problems, along with high blood pressure. He frequently wears dark glasses, even indoors, because of a condition that makes his eyes sensitive to light.

Two other similar pending cases relate to the 1981 martial law crackdown against Solidarity. One involves 22 riot police charged with the deaths of nine protesting miners, and Jaruzelski’s interior minister, Gen. Czeslaw Kiszczak, is charged with issuing orders to shoot.

Jaruzelski is the only top former communist leader to be brought to trial.

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