One of the four secret police officers on trial for killing a pro-Solidarity priest testified Friday that his superior assured him that they would escape prosecution because senior officers investigating the murder were “good and appropriate men” who would protect them.
Lt. Waldemar Chmielewski testified on the fifth day of a trial unlike any other in post-World War II Eastern Europe, where the political police are normally held above reproach.
Chmielewski and three other security officers are charged with the October abduction and murder of Father Jerzy Popieluszko, whose death has dealt a major setback to the efforts of Premier Wojciech Jaruzelski’s government’s to win popular acceptance.
The 29-year-old officer appeared on the verge of collapse as he told why, despite assurances of protection, he decided to cooperate with investigators and lead them to the spot where they had thrown the body of the slain priest into a Vistula River reservoir.
While his wife, who is eight months pregnant, sat among the spectators in the hushed courtroom, Chmielewski broke down and wept as he said, “For all practical purposes I have lost my family.”
“I had my life,” he said after regaining his composure. “I had to consider that the priest also had a family--the people who were suffering. You cannot hide that.”
Popieluszko’s two brothers, Stanislaw and Jozef, listened from a front-row seat in the heavily guarded courtroom.
‘I got panicky. I didn’t know what was going on.’
The youthful lieutenant spoke with a tremulous stammer and exaggerated movements of his jaw to overcome what the official Polish news agency PAP said was a partial paralysis of muscles on the right side of his face. The affliction was attributed to nervous strain after his arrest.
Chmielewski, Lt. Leszek Pekala, 32, and Capt. Grzegorz Piotrowski, 33, are charged with abducting and killing Popieluszko, now regarded by millions of Poles as a martyr to the cause of Solidarity, the outlawed independent trade union, and its democratic ideals. A fourth officer, Col. Adam Pietruszka, 47 is on trial for aiding and abetting the murder and a subsequent cover-up.
All four officers were assigned to the 4th Department of the security service, the secret police unit assigned to control Poland’s powerful Roman Catholic Church. They face possible death sentences if convicted.
Chmielewski told the court that three days after the killing--at a time when investigators’ suspicions had already begun to focus on the three officers--he told his superior, Piotrowski, that he thought he was under surveillance and asked what he should do to protect himself from arrest.
Chmielewski said that Piotrowski and Pekala attempted to confuse investigators by indicating that the priest’s kidnaping was an ordinary civil crime. He said they telephoned church officials in Warsaw and demanded a $50,000 ransom.
“They laughed after making the call to the church,” he said.
He testified that Piotrowski tried to calm his fears about the investigation. “I was told there was nothing to worry about,” he said. “Piotrowski said the people involved in the investigation are good and appropriate men.”
Asked to identify the members of the special investigating commission he thought Piotrowski had in mind, the lieutenant named Gen. Zenon Platek, the head of the 4th Department, and Zbigniew Jablonski, also a department head in the security service. Jablonski is believed to be a general, but his rank could not be immediately confirmed.
In court testimony last week, Chmielewski’s fellow officer, Pekala, mentioned Jablonski in the same context. He said that their superior, Piotrowski, appeared “relaxed” and “happy” when he learned that the special investigating commission included Platek and Jablonski.
The fourth officer on trial, Pietruszka, was also a member of the commission.
The government’s indictment accuses Pietruszka of encouraging the murder and then playing a key role in a short-lived cover-up to protect his three subordinates.
“Not having any suspicions, Gen. Platek included Pietruszka in the group set up to investigate the abduction,” the indictment says. “Using the information he gained, Pietruszka made efforts to turn suspicion away from Piotrowski and himself.”
Chmielewski told the court Friday that he learned from his captain that Pietruszka had advised them to change the license plates on the police car they used in the murder and warned that their offices might be bugged. But the cover-up nevertheless quickly unraveled.
Four days after the kidnaping, the two lieutenants were summoned to the office by Platek, head of the 4th Department, and ordered to describe their activities on the day Popieluszko disappeared.
“I got panicky,” Chmielewski said. “I didn’t know what was going on. I thought Piotrowski escaped somewhere and was scheming against me and Pekala. . . . I expected to be arrested at any moment, and it happened the next day.
“There was no agreement about what we would say in questioning because Piotrowski assured us we would not be questioned,” he said, adding that he had trusted the captain “more than my father.”
On Oct. 24, five days after Popieluszko was killed, the government announced the arrest of Chmielewski, Pekala and Piotrowski. A week later, the government disclosed that Platek had been suspended from duty for failure to exercise supervision and that his deputy, Pietruszka, was under arrest on suspicion of complicity.
During much of the lieutenant’s testimony, Piotrowski, who had first entered the courtroom last week with an air of self-assurance, held his head down, pinching the bridge of his nose. The two junior officers have depicted him as the one who inflicted the beatings and who decided that the body would be dumped in the Vistula River, weighted with a sack of stones.
Chmielewski said that the sight of Piotrowski beating the bound and gagged priest horrified him. He and Pekala twice urged that Popieluszko be left in the forest, but both times, he said, the captain ordered them to “keep driving.”
Before driving to the dam, he said, Piotrowski inflicted a final beating on the priest as he lay helpless in the trunk of their car.
“It was cruel and nightmarish,” Chmielewski told the court.
He said that Pekala joined the captain in lashing the sack of stones to Popieluszko’s feet, then “all three of us threw the body into the water.”
After his arrest, Chmielewski initially misled investigators, telling them that Popieluszko had been left in a forested area. But when he learned that Piotrowski, the man whose assurances of protection he had trusted implicitly, was also under arrest, he said, “I decided to confess.”