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TOMASZ GZELL

When he was the leader of Poland and one of the more feared men on the continent, General Wojciech Jaruzelski commanded a huge bureaucracy and operated behind a wall of security. Today his safekeeping falls to a single desultory soldier, and his office staff consists of a blond secretary who confesses that she isn't overly busy.

But her boss is still an imposing figure. Tall, spare and erect in his immaculate grey suit, the man who famously - and tragically - clashed with Lech Walesa and his Solidarity trade unionists wears his trademark dark glasses and remains, despite thinning hair and a bandage on his cheek, the picture of a statesman: polite, cool, a tad superior.

When we meet, he takes my hand and, with old-world formality, brushes my fingers with his lips for an uncomfortable fraction of a second. The cool doesn't last much longer.

Noticing that I am not recording the interview (conducted with the help of a Polish interpreter), he is suddenly furious, complaining that I should write faster. He has no intention of repeating himself if I miss something.

The general has a better reason to be irritable. All the festivities marking the 20th anniversary of fall of the Berlin Wall make the death of communism seem like ancient history, and yet Poland's last Communist head of state is still trying to stay out of jail.

The others who led East Bloc nations when the wall came down have died or at least been punished - even Egon Krenz, who was East Germany's last president for a matter of weeks in 1989, has spent time behind bars. But Poland has yet to convict Gen. Jaruzelski who, at 86, finds himself back on trial and facing a 10-year sentence for "acts against the Polish nation."

Having fought to clear his name since he left office, he refuses to give up now. He has a new book out (the first was a bestseller), and is so keen to defend himself that, when I mention he was first accused of treason after stepping down in 1990, he leaps from his chair and shouts: "Never that!" as though it hadn't happened. Then he explains: "After five years of hearings and dozens of witnesses, I was found not guilty."

But even after all these years, he is being pursued for the same sin: his infamous decision to declare martial law on Dec. 13, 1981. Three days later, miners went on strike, and the police responded with water cannons, tanks and guns.

More than 100 protesters died, but the general argues that, instead of punishing him, Poles should be thanking him.

SLAVE LABOURER

Wojciech Jaruzelski was born near Poland's eastern border into a well-to-do, rural family, members of the gentry who had fought to defend the nation against the Russians. In 1941, after the Soviet occupation of Polish territory allowed by the notorious Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, the family was shipped off to Siberia as slave labourers. His father died there, and young Wojciech made his coffin.

But he became an enthusiastic cadre in the Polish section of the Red Army and, three years later, was back in Poland as Soviet forces surged westward. From a distance he watched as Warsaw was destroyed, under orders from Moscow not to interfere until the Germans had finished off the Polish resistance.

Even so, he joined the Communist Party and took its teaching seriously. "The Communist Manifesto," he tells me, "is about equality, social justice; it is ethical, moral, a beautiful idea - but it turned out to be utopian."

Paradise was certainly lost by 1968, when he led the Polish military in the Warsaw Pact invasion that snuffed out Czechoslovakia's taste of "socialism with a human face."

In 1981, he became prime minister, only to find the tables had turned. Solidarity, with 10 million members, was threatening to unseat Moscow's puppet government. The Red Army had 20 divisions on the border, but "the Polish army would have resisted," he insists. "There would have been a sea of blood."

Future Soviet leader Yuri Andropov, then KGB boss, summoned him to a meeting. "He wanted to discuss how I would deal with Solidarity. I knew that [East Bloc leaders]were pushing him to attack Poland. He accused me of being unable to control the situation."

The general insisted he could cope, but feared he might be hauled off to Moscow to stand trial. Was he afraid? Of course not. "I was a soldier," he yells. "I was shot twice during the war." He also was gambling that the Soviets, then bogged down in Afghanistan, were not keen on a second war.

"Solidarity," he adds, trying to crack a smile, "wasn't a company of angels," but there were "troglodytes" in his camp as well. Martial law was his only option, he claims - "I was pressured to do more."

Poland's Institute of National Memory thinks otherwise. Created to investigate war crimes, the agency now has a staff of 2,000 looking into wrongdoings under the Communists. It has charged the general under the Criminal Code with "directing a criminal organization" - the military council that imposed martial law.

A legal device normally used against criminal gangs, this infuriates the general. "They can't try me again for the same supposed crime …," he shouts, "So, after 10 years, a government-sponsored institute is trying again, with no new evidence and no new witnesses."

Former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher and glasnost hero Mikhail Gorbachev have criticized the move, and Gen. Jaruzelski tells me to read about him in Mr. Gorbachev's memoirs, suggesting his accusers do the same.

"They were not there. They never suffered, they didn't go to prison, yet they scream the loudest. Michnik, who went to prison, understands."

Celebrated Polish intellectual Adam Michnik was a prisoner of conscience under Communist rule, but has since befriended the man who had him jailed, and wrote the introduction to the first Jaruzelski book. "We understand each other," the general says.

The new book, he adds, contains what he wants to say if forced to testify. "It is my statement to the court. It will be there long after I am gone. My first-hand account. A record of my contribution to history."

GORBACHEV'S MODEL

He explains that his statement addresses the Soviet threat and the Kremlin's conviction in 1981 that Poland was "an island of heresy" in the Communist world. "Here, culture and science were almost free," he says. "The Church was allowed to gather its faithful, there was some private property. Later, Gorbachev told me, our Polish reforms had been a laboratory for his perestroika."

Of course, he adds, "history is always infected with politics. It is never objective."

Although he challenges the Institute's "infected" version of history, he admits to having been ambitious at one time. How else could someone have climbed so high within the Communist ranks?

But he says that "I have no expectations, now. The worst that can happen to a person is death, and I am there. I merely hope that the next generation will understand my role in the context of my time in Siberia, my being a front-line soldier, my 12 years as head of the army, and that, while I am the one who declared martial law, I am also the one who … negotiated democracy."

And yet now, instead of gratitude, he finds himself back in court again. Even his new book is a dud. The last one saw people line up for his autograph, but this time, he complains, nobody comes.

Why aren't people more interested?

"It's biology," he says. "Those who remember are dying, and the young are brainwashed by black-and-white versions of history" which, in reality, is "multi-coloured, like life."

He contends that "I am not idealizing my life. When I see how others abuse history, I think I should at least provide the truth. My truth.

"I am reaching the end of my life - I have nothing to fear from the truth."

That may be - but justice still poses a threat, even to someone so sure of his own innocence.

As the daughter of one of the victims of martial law said after 22 police officers who'd been charged were acquitted, if they didn't do it, "who killed my father?"

Award-winning Toronto author Anna Porter is writing a book on democracy in Eastern Europe since the fall of the Iron Curtain.