Poland begins trial in killing of activist priest

How high in the Polish Communist Party will retribution reach? This question hangs in the air with the Dec. 27 opening of the unprecedented trial in Torun, Poland, of the alleged secret-police murderers of a Warsaw priest.

Despite persistent rumors that orders for the murder two months ago of pro-Solidarity priest Jerzy Popieluszko came from high-level hard-liners within the party, indictments have been confined to mid-level ranks of the secret police. Nor has there been any public indication that the hard-line Politburo member popularly suspected of complicity, Lt. Gen. Miroslaw Milewski, might have to resign.

The Polish public is leery of a coverup, however, and pressures for General Milewski's resignation may build as the trial proceeds in the next several weeks. Some signs - such as the assured publicity from the admission of six Western journalists to the courtroom - suggest that such pressure would be welcome to the moderates around Poland's prime minister, Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski.

The Polish government has stated that the purpose of Father Popie-luszko's murder was to destabilize Poland. Party moderates, who favor a relatively conciliatory line toward the Roman Catholic Church and ex-activists from the now-outlawed Solidarity trade union, have further explained to Western journalists that the object was to discredit a conciliatory policy, force polarization, and then stage a palace coup by hard-liners to restore order - presumably with the blessing of the Russians.

What happened instead - for the first time in postwar East European history - was that the secret-police killers of a dissident were immediately arrested and indicted. Capt. Grzegorz Piotrowski and Lts. Leszek Pekala and Waldemar Chmielewski of the SB, the Interior Ministry's security and intelligence agency, have already confessed to kidnapping, maltreating, and murdering Popieluszko, according to the 70-page indictment read out in court. The fourth defendant, Col. Adam Pietruszka, ex-deputy director of the Interior Ministry's department for supervision of the Catholic Church, has denied aiding and abetting the murder, as charged in the prosecutor's indictment.

If convicted, the four face sentences ranging from eight years' imprisonment to death.

In their defense, the two lieutenants claim, according to the indictment, that they were acting on the instruction of Captain Piotrowski, who told them the secret order to kill Popieluszko ''came from the highest level'' of the government and that the lieutenants could expect to be rewarded for their zealousness. Piotrowski denies this, according to the indictment, and says that he decided to kill Popieluszko on his own initiative, out of professional frustration at failing to stop the outspoken priest's ''anti-state'' sermons any other way.

When the court reconvenes Jan. 2, 22 witnesses will be called to give oral testimony and a further 62 depositions will be read, according to the official Polish news agency PAP.

A verdict is expected in late January.

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