WARSAW The communist leaders who imposed martial law in Poland 30 years ago were part of a criminal enterprise trying to crush the Solidarity trade union, a court ruled Thursday, rejecting claims that they had acted to avert a Soviet invasion.
Various Polish courts have struggled over the years to decide whether the communists led by General Wojciech Jaruzelski acted illegally when they declared martial law in December 1981 and disbanded Solidarity, the communist bloc's first independent labor union.
The Warsaw court Thursday handed Czeslaw Kiszczak, 86, interior minister in 1981, a two-year suspended sentence and ruled that the then First Secretary of the Communist Party, Stanislaw Kania, 84, was innocent.
Jaruzelski, now 88 and one of nine original defendants, was excluded from the case because of poor health. The general, known for his trademark dark glasses, has always insisted that he declared martial law to forestall an invasion by the Soviet Union and other neighboring communist states.
"There is no doubt that at the moment when martial law was declared there was no direct danger of an armed intervention from the Warsaw Pact armies, whose nations expected the situation in Poland to be settled by the Polish authorities," said Judge Ewa Jethon, reading out the court's decision.
Elsewhere in eastern Europe, Soviet-led forces had crushed pro-democracy protests in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968.
The court ruled that Jaruzelski and a handful of military officials constituted an illegal criminal group which knowingly broke the law when it imposed martial law that lasted till 1983.
As well as banning the pro-democracy Solidarity union, Poland's communist authorities imposed a curfew, severely restricted people's freedom of movement and jailed hundreds of dissidents on flimsy charges.
The ruling was delayed for two hours and moved to a different courtroom after a group of protesters shouted "Shame!" and "Murderer!" at Kania, the only defendant present in the courtroom.
"You think this ruling is just? A bicycle thief would get such a sentence," said Grzegorz Dabrowski, one of the protesters.
The current case was launched in 2008 by prosecutors at the Institute of National Remembrance (IPN), a state body that investigates crimes dating back to both the communist era and the Nazi occupation of Poland during World War Two.
(Additional reporting by Sam Harcourt and Kacper Pempel; editing by Tim Pearce)