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The BBC's Helen Wade
reports on the start of General Jaruzelski's trial
 real 56k

Tuesday, 15 May, 2001, 11:17 GMT 12:17 UK
Poland's ex-leader on trial at 77
General Jaruzelski
Jaruzelski: Denies ordering troops to open fire
The last communist leader of Poland, General Wojciech Jaruzelski, has gone on trial in Warsaw charged with ordering troops to fire on striking shipyard workers in 1970.

Forty-four protesters died, and 1,000 were injured - 200 of them seriously.

The 77-year-old general, who denies the charges, appeared in court in his trademark sunglasses, using a stick to help him walk.

He was Poland's defence minister when the workers were shot dead as they protested against food price rises.

Gdansk shipyard workers
The shipyards of Gdansk were the birthplace of Solidarity
Most of the protesters were shipyard workers who had gone on strike in the northern cities of Gdansk and Gdynia, protesting at steep rises in the cost of food and other consumer goods.

General Jaruzelski, looking frail, made no comment as he walked past reporters to enter the Warsaw courtroom.

His health is so poor that the trial - originally opened in 1996 - has been repeatedly delayed.

Lech Walesa at Gdansk shipyard gates
Lech Walesa was propelled to national leadership from Gdansk
This time, the court has agreed to limit hearings to three or four hours at a stretch, and doctors are expected to monitor his health throughout.

Outside the court, a small group of retired servicemen had gathered to offer him support, insisting that he was innocent.

"When he was defence minister, he did everything to avoid bloodshed," one of the supporters told journalists.

More than a decade after the shootings, General Jaruzelski become Poland's prime minister, staying in office from 1981 to 1989.

Solidarity

He imposed martial law soon after taking power, in a bid to quash the Solidarity workers' movement - also born in the shipyards of Gdansk.

But by the end of his time in office, he had authorised talks with Solidarity, and accepted Poland's transition to democracy under Lech Walesa's leadership.

The trial is expected to last at least a year.

The general faces a maximum prison sentence of 25 years if convicted.

He insists that the then Polish leader, Wladyslaw Gomulka, did not involve him in key decisions.

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