Sitting behind bars are 217 Poles whose futures largely depend on the wordy warfare between Washington and the Polish government over sanctions. The United States has demanded that these political prisoners be freed before it will remove the economic restrictions President Reagan clamped on when Poland was placed under martial law two years ago this week.
Lech Walesa has renewed his call for the US to lift sanctions because of the severe damage they are doing to the Polish economy. But the authorities dismissed out of hand the possibility that the former Solidarity leader could serve an an ''intermediary.'' They restated their own demands for an unconditional lifting of the restrictions.
Some of the 217 political activists - the latest government figure - have already been sentenced, but have gained partial remission under the July amnesty.
But 11 of the most prominent detainees indicted on serious antistate charges were not covered by the amnesty. Reportedly they will be brought to trial soon unless it appears that sanctions will be lifted.
The anomaly in these cases is the quite evident reluctance of the leadership of Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski to bring them to trial.
Four of them figure in the case against KOR, the dissident workers' Self-Defense Committee established initially to aid those sentenced following the 1976 food riots. The most notable of them, Jacek Kuron, a longtime left political oppositionist, and Adam Michnik gained further prominence as major advisers to Lech Walesa in the August 1980 strike movement and in the subsequent formation of Solidarity.
A second trial has been readied against seven members of Solidarity's national commission who were scooped up on that first night of martial law, Dec. 12, 1981.
But the government has been dragging its feet. The prosecution in the KOR case was ready last February. The defendants were allowed an almost inordinate time by any standard to prepare their defense.
Several times it was widely said the case was about to open. The preliminaries to the trials of Solidarity dissidents were allowed to drag on in the same way. No trial dates have been set.
The authorities have urged all 11 to accept ''voluntary'' and ''temporary'' exile. None of them have.
It is a genuine dilemma for General Jaruzelski. It goes beyond the likely adverse public reactions to trials and sentences. He has staked his own uncompromising but generally ''moderate'' line on national conciliation and dialogue (although he continues to exclude Walesa).
And Jaruzelski's position seems to have strengthened of late. The hard-line voices, urging tough justice against the active opposition, are noticeable muted.
But complicating the outcome of the trials are the US sanctions and church-state relations.
The government's relations with the Roman Catholic Church are reserved, to say the least. For example, the authorities' have threatened proceedings against at least four allegedly ''political'' priests.
The controversial Warsaw cleric, the Rev. Jerzy Popieluszko, underwent a preliminary interrogation Monday, then was detained under the 48-hours rule that allows for further investigation.
He was released, following ''intervention by church representatives,'' the official news agency reported. Fr. Popieluszko conducted morning service in his church as usual Wednesday.
As for sanctions, ''Jaruzelski cannot yield to Reagan's conditions,'' a responsible source said. ''That being so, there now are only two alternatives: Either the defendants accept emigration - and to this they have all said 'no' - or the US indicates a change of position.
''If sanctions go on much longer, then trials will have to go ahead,'' he said. Security crackdown
In the last week, the authorities have intensified precautions to thwart any unrest that might occur Friday, the anniversary of the 1970 riots by Baltic workers. In Warsaw and at least seven other towns, some 60 persons were picked up as likely demonstrators, either Tuesday - the second anniversary of the imposition of martial law - or in Gdansk and other Baltic ports Friday.
But the focus fell on Lech Walesa when he drove with his wife to Czestochowa to dedicate his Nobel Peace Prize medal to the shrine of Jasna Gora. On their return, they were stopped 13 times by the police.
At Lodz, they were held for two hours while the police searched them, their son Bogdan, their driver, the Walesa family priest, the Rev. Henryk Jankowski, and the car. The police were reportedly looking for a tape recording of the speech Walesa wants to make at the Gdansk shipyard memorial when he lays flowers there Friday. Walesa said afterward he had no tapes with him.
The authorities have said no speechmaking will be permitted at the monument. A summons to the prosecutor's office in Gdansk is thought to be a warning that, if Walesa tries to go ahead with his plan, he will be prevented. Last year, police ''took him for a ride'' around the Gdansk region to keep him out of circulation through the anniversary day.