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Polish leader faces massacre charges

Jaruzelski
Jaruzelski: "Guilty in the moral sense"  

WARSAW, Poland (CNN) -- Poland's last communist leader General Wojciech Jaruzelski has arrived in court to face charges he ordered the shooting deaths of 44 shipyard workers in 1970.

Wearing his trademark dark glasses and leaning on a cane, Jaruzelski showed no emotion as he walked past reporters into Warsaw's Provincial Court on Tuesday morning.

Led by two bodyguards, he took his place among nine co-defendants and chatted with his lawyers before the proceedings opened.

Doctors are expected to keep a close watch on the 78-year-old retired general, and the court has agreed to limit hearings to three or four hours.

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Profile of Gen. Jaruzelski
 

He 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.

Jaruzelski is charged with ordering the military to shoot at workers protesting against price rises while he was defence minister. Forty-four workers were killed in the Baltic coast cities of Gdynia, Gdansk, Szczecin and Elblag on December 17, 1970. More than 1,000 were wounded, 200 seriously.

An investigation by the communist regime was dropped, and there was never a trial.

Declining health

Jaruzelski has denied the charges repeatedly, saying that the Polish leader at the time, Wladyslaw Gomulka, disliked him and kept him out of key decisions. His nine co-defendants, ex-military officers and party officials, say they were absent or deny giving orders to shoot.

"I feel guilty in the moral sense, not only as the then defence minister, but as somebody who was working in the organs of power," the general said last year.

The last court session in the trial was in 1999. The repeated delays were the result of Jaruzelski's declining health and legal wrangling over whether he should be tried in a military or civil court.

The Supreme Court ruled it should be conducted in a Warsaw provincial court.

Jaruzelski escaped punishment for imposing martial law in 1981, when thousands of opposition activists were jailed and many killed, thanks to an act passed in 1996 by a parliament dominated by parties rooted in the communist system.

The governing right-wing parties, descendants of the Soviet bloc's first free trade union, have said Jaruzelski should be treated as a criminal, while the post-communist left wants bygones to be bygones.

"This is one of last attempts to do justice for communist crimes. Communist officials must be sentenced for what they did, just as Nazi German criminals were," said Miroslaw Styczen, leader of the rightist faction in the ruling Solidarity bloc.

The opposition party of reformed communists, the Democratic Left Alliance (SLD), is riding high in the polls -- despite objecting to the Jaruzelski trial, which has gained little public support.

"The Jaruzelski case should be left to historians. These events took place in a completely different reality and no court is capable of judging them," said SLD spokeswoman Danuta Waniek.

"This old, ill man should not be harassed."

If convicted, Jaruzelski could face life in prison.

However, lawyers said the five-year-old trial, for which 90 volumes of testimony from 4,000 witnesses have been gathered, was unlikely to finish soon.

On Wednesday the trial re-opens against communist-era Interior Minister Czeslaw Kiszczak over his role in the killing of striking miners under martial law in 1981.



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