WARSAW (Reuters) - Poland's last communist leader, General Wojciech Jaruzelski, told a court on Thursday his decision in 1981 to declare martial law was a necessary "evil" that averted disaster and prepared the way for democracy.
At the third hearing in his long-delayed trial, Jaruzelski, 85, also said the case brought against him and seven other communist-era officials was biased and politically motivated.
"I constantly state that martial law saved Poland from looming catastrophe. Martial law was evil, but it was a far lesser evil than what would have happened without it," Jaruzelski said in his lengthy defense statement.
He and the other defendants are accused of illegally declaring martial law and of major human rights violations.
The general has often argued the 1981 decision spared Poland, a country of 38 million people, the kind of Soviet military intervention that crushed pro-democracy supporters in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968.
Under martial law, which lasted until 1983, dozens of people were killed, hundreds were jailed and the anti-communist Solidarity trade union was banned.
Jaruzelski, who was both prime minister and communist party chief, opened talks with Solidarity leaders after martial law was lifted, starting a process that led to the fall of communism in 1989. He served as president during the transition period, standing down in 1990.
The National Remembrance Institute (IPN), which holds communist-era files, says Jaruzelski's government was a "criminal group." Seven other communist-era officials are on trial with Jaruzelski over their role under martial law.
Wearing his trademark dark glasses and speaking in a firm voice interrupted only by occasional coughing fits, Jaruzelski said he regretted Poles' suffering during martial law.
"I am sorry. I grieve with regard mainly to the social costs of this dramatically difficult decision and those cases where particular people suffered," he said.
"I don't pretend I was somebody I wasn't. I was close to the ideology of socialism, as well as to the growing awareness of the need to change the system... while preserving Poland's territorial integrity."
Jaruzelski said Solidarity's later triumph was made possible by his own "pragmatic" decisions during and after the state of martial law, adding that he hoped his trial would help Poles to overcome disagreements over their recent history.
"It is important that history doesn't continue to divide Poles for ever... History and the question of who is right are complicated and cannot be seen in terms of black and white."
It is not clear how long the trial will run and many procedural delays are expected, not least because of the advanced age and health problems of the defendants.
"I don't know who, if any of us, will witness the end of this trial," Jaruzelski told the court.
(Editing by Matthew Jones)