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Polish priest's murder trial enters crucial phase

The brothers of the Rev. Jerzy Popieluszko sit in the courtroom here, impassive, betraying emotion only in the drumming of fingers as they listen to detail after detail of the priest's murder. Ten yards away, four Polish secret police officers look straight ahead or sink their heads into their chests, staring at the ceiling or at wrists chafed from handcuffs. They avoid eye contact with the Popieluszko family.

All four agents face possible death sentences for their part in the killing of the priest, an outspoken champion of the banned Solidarity trade union.

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This week the trial enters its most dangerous phase so far. And the black-bereted antiterrorist commandos scattered throughout Courtroom 40 are conspicuously alert.

Capt. Grzegorz Piotrowski, the acknowledged ringleader of the kidnap attempt, testified Monday. The earlier testimony of his two accomplices -- Lts. Leszek Pekala and Waldemar Chmielewski -- has burdened him with the bulk of the responsibility for the murder of Fr. Popieluszko.

[Capt. Piotrowski admitted beating the cleric and dumping him in a waterway but said he pleaded not guilty to all charges, Reuter reported.

[Earlier in the day, Lieutenant Chmielewski had said Piotrowski had proposed leaving the priest in a branch-covered pit in the forest to die.

[Piotrowski said: ``I do not plead guilty to any of the charges.'' Western correspondents attending the hearing said he added: ``I admit to taking part in certain operations. I plead guilty to operating with the other two (accused killers), to hitting the priest with my fist and a club and to knocking him out, tying and gagging him and dumping in the river.''

[Chief Judge Artur Kujawa told him: ``What you say is illogical.'']

The two lieutenants, though they have disagreed on detail, both argue that they did not set out with the intention of killing the priest. They say they were caught on the cold night of Oct. 19 in a spiral of fear, that ultimately they did nothing more or less than obey orders -- the orders of Captain Piotrowski.

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As the week opened, Piotrowski -- reduced like his two lieutenants to private after his arrest -- had a hard choice: He could stay silent, as he had during earlier interrogations; or he could try to share out some of the blame with the fourth man in the dock, Col. Adam Piet-ruszka; or, most perilously of all, he could claim to have received orders from the very top of the security police.

Chmielewski has claimed that Piotrowski knew several senior officers in the secret police who would rescue them or cover their tracks, should the murder be discovered.

Two officers, Gen. Zenon Platek, head of the church-monitoring division of the secret police, and Col. Zbig-niew Jablonski, another department head, have already been named. If Piotrowski tries to save himself from the death penalty by naming others, the whole structure of Poland's police control will have been split open.

Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski took a large risk when he decided to put policemen on public trial. After all, it was the police that provided him with the muscle to enforce martial law in the winter of 1981. Although policemen have been arrested in other communist states over the past 40 years, rarely have they been put on such public trial.

Indeed, the trial is reported fully -- and on the whole, fairly -- by the Polish press. The evening radio news carries a daily half-hour extract from the hearings. Few people in the court, however -- not the prosecutors, the judges, or the collection of priests at the back of the room -- seem to doubt the guilt of the men in the dock.

General Jaruzelski took the risk because he thought he could flush out any hard-line Marxist challenge to his power. The hard-line Marxists notoriously prefer the dark corridors of conspiracy to the bright light of day. There are many voices in the Interior Ministry, which oversees the secret police, that are expressing unhappiness about the openness of the trial. Too many professional secrets are being revealed, from the special ``W'' passes that allow police agents to flout all traffic rules to the matter-of-factness with which the elimination of troublesome priests is discussed.

With so much disquiet among secret police professionals, it is little wonder that the courtroom is one of the best-protected buildings in communist Poland.

Metal detectors and body checks -- even the judges were searched on the first day of the trial -- are routine. An underground passage linking Torun investigation prison to the courtroom -- a passage not used since World War I -- has been reopened. The prisoners are held in cells without nooks or crannies so warders can watch them 24 hours a day. Above all, the authorities want to avoid a desperate last-minute attempt to silence Piotrowski.

If that sounds like the political climate of South America rather than the staid politbureaucracy of the Soviet bloc, then so be it. The Poles themselves are shocked by the theater of it all, the sense of threat that seems so lightly covered in the Torun courthouse.

Who are these dark forces who could so easily silence witnesses or defendants, they ask. There is no ready answer. Perhaps Captain Piotrowski will give some clues this week.

Meanwhile, the two brothers of Popieluszko, a little overwhelmed by the trial, hear only the cruel words -- the beatings in the trunk of the secret police car, his last plea for mercy, the way stones were tied to his feet, the last minutes of a man now seen here as a martyr. And the tension in the courtroom is electric, but unpredictably so, like a faulty wire that can spark at any moment.

[Poland's Roman Catholic primate, Jozef Cardinal Glemp, appealed on Sunday to the communist authorities to renounce the use of fear as a political weapon, Reuter said. ``Must the performance of authority be so tragic? Should authority always be enforced through fear? Must authority isolate itself from society?'' he asked.]

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