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WARSAW (Reuters) - General Wojciech Jaruzelski, Poland's last communist leader who imposed martial law to crush the Solidarity movement only to hand over power less than a decade later, died aged 90 on Sunday after a long illness, a military hospital in Warsaw said.
In public a stern, enigmatic figure in his trademark dark glasses, Jaruzelski's record defies easy judgment and still divides Poles almost a quarter century after the fall of communism.
Lech Walesa, who was detained by Jaruzelski as Solidarity leader but eventually succeeded him as president, described the communist as a tragic figure who should be judged only by God.
For many Poles, Jaruzelski was a Soviet stooge who, with Moscow's backing, announced military rule on December 13, 1981, after the first independent trade union behind the Iron Curtain, Solidarity, threatened communist rule.
Others accepted his argument that the decision helped to avert a Soviet-led military intervention like those that crushed similar protests in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968.
"The general was accompanied by his daughter Monika until the last moment," the Military Medical Institute hospital in Warsaw, where he died, said in a statement.
Under martial law, which lasted until 1983, dozens of demonstrators were killed and thousands more, including Walesa, were jailed.
Decades later, on trial for declaring martial law and for human rights violations, Jaruzelski defended his decision.
"Martial law was evil but it was a far lesser evil than what would have happened without it," he told a court in 2008, adding that he regretted the "social costs" of the decision.
But as Polish president in 1989, Jaruzelski also convened talks that led to the legalization of Solidarity and the first partially free elections in the Soviet bloc that finally broke the communists' monopoly on power.
Walesa, who succeeded Jaruzelski as president in 1990, had partially reconciled with his former arch-foe and visited Jaruzelski at hospital and his home in recent years.
"Judging is always hard. We should leave it in God's hands," Nobel Peace Prize winner Walesa told TVP Info.
"In private talks he was a different man. A joker, he told beautiful jokes, he was at ease, sympathetic, and very intelligent, not at par with his other image. There were two images. A tragic figure, because he lived in times of treason."
Walesa compared Poland's negotiated transition from communism to democracy favorably with Ukraine, which has been plagued for months by deadly violence in a struggle between pro-Western and pro-Moscow political forces.
"We had to take responsibility for Poland and for the people. It could have ended like in Ukraine. We acted wisely, but in the direction of freedom so that Polish blood was not spilled," he said.
Jaruzelski was born in 1923 into a landowning family in eastern Poland. His family was deported to Siberia after Soviet troops invaded Poland and divided it with Nazi Germany at the beginning of World War Two.
He wore dark glasses to protect his eyes from the snow blindness he suffered during his Siberian exile, in the days before he joined the Soviet-led Polish army which helped Moscow to install the post-war communist regime in Poland.
Jaruzelski received military training in the Soviet Union and in the 1950s became Poland's youngest-ever general.
He became the chief of staff in 1965, three years before the Polish army helped the Warsaw Pact to crush the "Prague Spring" movement in what was then Czechoslovakia.
A political survivor, Jaruzelski weathered successive leadership crises to rise from defense minister in 1968 to prime minister in February 1981 and Communist party chief later that year.
After the fall of communism, Poland's parliament decided that Jaruzelski should not face court proceedings for declaring martial law, saying that history would be the best judge.
Jaruzelski faced a trial over the fatal shootings by security forces and the army in 1970, when he was defense minister, of dozens of demonstrators during protests against food price rises.
The proceedings were repeatedly delayed due to technicalities and the prosecution's case lost momentum.
The conservative government of then Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski, whose party was in power between 2005 and 2007, began pushing again for his trial over the 1981 crackdown.
The trial started in 2008 and was sponsored by Poland's Institute of National Remembrance (IPN), which supervises the country's communist-era files and is empowered to pursue legal action against those it considers to have committed "crimes against the Polish nation".
Jaruzelski was ultimately excluded from the list of defendants because of his poor health.
Finding some of his former co-defendants guilty, the court said there had been no clear danger of a Soviet invasion and the communist rulers who imposed martial law were part of a "criminal enterprise" clinging to power at all costs.
Like Walesa, the centre-right government of Prime Minister Donald Tusk also adopted a warmer tone towards the ailing Jaruzelski, who spent his last years mostly at his Warsaw home and in hospital, only rarely appearing in public.
Reporting by Marcin Goclowski, Pawel Florkiewicz, and Adrian Krajewski; Editing by David Stamp and Sophie Hares