Vienna — Under more ordinary circumstances it might be called "the case of the missing mimeograph machine." But the charge preferred against Polish dissident Miroslaw Chojecki at his Warsaw trial June 12 is no ordinary criminal affair -- not the sort of thing Agatha Christie's legendary Hercule Poirot might be called in to solve.
The Chojecki case has been running since early this year. It concerns the removal -- the prosecution calls it theft (which, technically, presumably it is) -- of an old copying machine from a state printing shop.
It also concerns a principal of state authority: In communist state -- a citizen may not own or use printing equipment without an official permit, nor publish what he (or she) prints without first submitting the material to state censorship.
Mr. Chojecki is well known in a dissident movement whose protest against such limits to individual freedoms goes back to the Polish student revolts against the Gomulka regime in the 1960s. That regime subsequently was deposed.
For several years Mr. Chojecki has directed the largest of the unauthorized publishing centers that print books and other writings, both Polish and foreign, that have been banned outright by the government or at least denied any general public availability.
During pre-trial detention -- which extended past the period permitted for holding a person without pressing charges -- he went on a hunger strike and was force-fed. But protest from Polish authors and other intellectuals compelled his release a month ago.
He said at that time he did not believe the authorities had dropped the case and that he expected them to seek a conviction on a purely criminal charge.
Also charged are a student sympathizer, Bogdan Grzesiak, accused with Mr. Chojecki of stealing the machine, and two printers alleged to have sold it to Mr. Chojecki for 7,000 zlotys (about $330).
The case -- and the issue behind it -- has aroused more public interest in Polish dissident activity than anything else in recent years.
In no other East-bloc country has there been such a proliferation and diversity of protest groups and clandestine publications. Many sprang into existence after the authorities used repressive measures against the leaders of the 1976 riots that erupted when the government announced plans to increase basic food prices drastically.
Since then the movement as a whole had suffered and lost public credibility through rivalries between individual and groups, the proclamation of lofty aims that have no basis in reality, and the failure to establish a common platform with more public appeal.
But many Poles who otherwise stand quite aloof from dissident activity see the Chojecki case as raising an issue central to the intellectuals' challenge to the Warsaw government for two decades: greater freedom of expression, particularly in the printed word.
His "defense" is that the machine was an old one the printshop had discarded and, though technically "theft" might be argued by the prosecution, the issue on which he and his publishing house have taken their stand is the "freedom" to print.
If Mr. Chojecki is convicted and given a suspended sentence as he expects. It would seem to confirm an impression that although the authorities want to silence unlicensed protest and criticism, they will tread circumspectly, if only for the sake of Poland's image in the West.
Any harsh verdict could well spark public ractions that would be all the more serious at a time when the government is planning to reduce the costly subsidies that have kept food prices low for a decade and to prepare people for substantial rises this year.