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Ex-Generals Acquitted in Polish Priest’s Death : Courts: Outrage follows verdict in 1984 slaying of pro-Solidarity cleric, which marked turning point in movement’s struggle.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Two top generals in the former Polish secret police were acquitted Friday of plotting the murder of the Rev. Jerzy Popieluszko, the popular pro-Solidarity priest whose brutal death 10 years ago was a seminal event in Poland’s struggle for democracy.

Dozens of courtroom onlookers, many wearing pins bearing the charismatic priest’s photograph, raised their fists and shouted in anger as presiding Judge Jaroslaw Goral announced the verdicts.

“This is a disgrace! A betrayal!” screamed Krystyna Gozdziewska, a member of the Warsaw parish where Popieluszko’s fiery anti-Communist sermons attracted international attention. “It is a shameful day for Poland.”

In the closing months of the two-year trial, the Warsaw regional court agreed to reduce the charges against the former generals, Wladyslaw Ciaston and Zenon Platek, from masterminding the murder to simply inciting it.

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But the prosecution was unable to meet even the lesser burden of proof.

“The prosecution tried to find out the truth, but the trial showed that the prosecution had no chance,” an apologetic Goral told the courtroom after ordering it cleared of protesters. “Just like in a different situation, Father Popieluszko didn’t have a chance.”

Popieluszko was kidnaped, tortured and murdered Oct. 19, 1984, while on his way home to Warsaw from a church service out of town. Police divers found his bound, gagged and beaten body 11 days later in a Vistula River reservoir, a noose around his neck and a sack weighted with stones tied to his legs.

The murder shocked the nation--several hundred thousand mourners attended his funeral--and instantly breathed new life into the then-underground Solidarity movement.

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The death gave a martyr to the outlawed union, which anointed the frail-looking priest its patron and tightened its ties with the Roman Catholic Church. For years, defiant Poles displayed his photograph in their windows.

“After the murder of Father Jerzy, events happened that could not be stopped,” said attorney Krzysztof Piesiewicz, who represented the Popieluszko family at the trial. “The government couldn’t keep certain things secret anymore.”

In his autobiography, Polish President Lech Walesa, who led the Solidarity movement, said the killing helped persuade “the more reasonable part of the government machinery” to renounce violence, thus paving the way for Solidarity’s eventual rise to power.

“Father Popieluszko’s death helped compromise take the place of struggle, and put Poland on the right road,” Walesa said.

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Ciaston and Platek, both of whom refused to testify during the trial, spoke bitterly of their ordeal, claiming they were the victims of a political witch hunt. The generals were arrested in 1990 and imprisoned for two years before being freed at the start of the trial.

“From the very beginning, this process was intended to divert the attention of a society disappointed by the changes taking place after 1989,” Ciaston said. “You can ask Solidarity if they thought the changes they brought about would lead to 3 million unemployed.”

The two men, once high-ranking Communist officials in the Interior Ministry, claimed credit for the arrest and murder convictions of four low-level security officials who carried out the killing. The showy public trial in 1985 was intended to demonstrate the Communist regime’s resolve to punish the killers, two of whom have since been released from prison.

Ciaston and Platek were implicated in the murder plot during the 1985 trial, but Communist authorities did not pursue the trail of responsibility any further. Both men soon lost their jobs.

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But it was not until the end of Communist rule in 1989 that a case was made against them. By then, much of the evidence was missing or altered.

“I am so upset I can barely speak,” said Tadeusz Klimek, a retired steel worker and volunteer bodyguard to Popieluszko who fought back tears outside the courtroom. “Father Jerzy did so much for Poland, but with decisions like this, I am just worried that his sacrifice might have been in vain.”


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