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Czeslaw Kiszczak dies at 90; Polish leader thwarted, then accepted democracy

Czeslaw Kiszczak dies at 90; Polish leader thwarted, then accepted democracy
Polish Gen. Czeslaw Kiszczak during May Day celebrations in Warsaw in 1984. (Grzegorz Roginski / EPA)

Gen. Czeslaw Kiszczak, a Polish general and communist-era leader who played a key role in imposing martial law in 1981 but eight years later also took part in talks that allowed for a peaceful transition to democracy, died on Thursday in Warsaw. He was 90.

After Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski, the nation's top leader at the time, Kiszczak was the most important figure in the crackdown aimed at crushing the pro-democracy Solidarity movement. Martial law included the mass roundup and internment of Solidarity activists, curfews and other harsh measures.

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Both men long argued that they acted to stave off a Soviet invasion. With Poland under Soviet control at the time, many believed that Moscow would invade to crush democratic change, as it did in Czechoslovakia in 1968.

"I saved the country from terrible troubles," Kiszczak said years later.

Kiszczak was also the last prime minister of communist Poland, a job he held for less than three weeks in 1989 before the country's transition to a free-market democracy.

Jaruzelski died in 2014.

Both men remain deeply controversial. They are hated by many Poles for repressions that caused the suffering of many Poles, accused of acting in the interests of Moscow, but they have also won some grudging praise for stepping away from power without violence.

Still, many Poles find it infuriating that Jaruzelski and Kiszczak went to their deaths without facing punishment for martial law and other repressive measures, while some lower level police officers have faced convictions. More than 100 Poles were killed in the crackdown.

In the quarter-century of democratic Poland, Kiszczak was tried in court multiple times for his role in imposing martial law, but he never served prison time.

One of the most serious accusations against him is connected to the massacre of nine miners who were shot by riot police in 1981 for protesting martial law. Another 25 were wounded.

At times he was acquitted, at other times found guilty, but he always managed to avoid punishment amid appeals, retrials and the expiration of the statute of limitations.

Gera writes for the Associated Press.

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