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Jaruzelski says he agonized for months over martial law

Fellow Poles continue to "spit on my name."

WARSAW, Poland - Poland's last communist leader agonized for months before declaring martial law in 1981 to try to crush the Solidarity freedom movement, knowing he would make enemies of his countrymen.

In an interview, Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski acknowledged his sins and those of his government in defending communism in the face of strikes and protests that resulted in the fall of his regime.

Many Poles continue to "spit on my name," he said, although he helped the peaceful transition from communist state to free-market democracy starting with semi-free elections nearly 20 years ago on June 4, 1989.

Jaruzelski remains a deeply divisive figure in Poland after imposing martial law. Some view him as a traitor, while others say he was a patriot who spared the country a Soviet invasion.

Poles awoke Dec. 13, 1981, to Jaruzelski in his drab olive military uniform and trademark tinted glasses - worn because of snow blindness developed during an exile in Siberia - announcing the crackdown on television.

Tanks rumbled through city streets, and thousands of pro-democracy activists, including Solidarity leader Lech Walesa, were rounded up and placed in internment camps. About 100 people were killed.

"Before imposing martial law, the months, weeks, days, hours for me were a nightmare," said Jaruzelski, 85, who headed the Communist Party until 1989, the year before it was disbanded.

"It was an ordeal, thinking about how to resolve the situation. I knew that no matter how it ends - and I believed it would end with the situation stabilizing - that a large part of society will be hostile toward me, is going to spit on my name, and that's what happened, even today."

He has faced a slew of trials for his role in crackdowns, but has never been convicted. Two cases continue: one over the shooting of shipyard workers by soldiers during food-price protests in December 1970 and another that started last year over his decision to impose martial law.

Speaking in his wood-paneled office, Jaruzelski said he had wanted to reform the communist system from within, even if that meant sharing power with the Solidarity-led democratic opposition. It was obvious that change was coming when he first met Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev in 1985 and they sat together to discuss badly needed reforms.

"In contrast with his predecessors, he was a younger man, broad-minded. You could discuss things with him without inhibition. . . . It was a completely different world," said Jaruzelski. "It was the first time you could actually talk to a Soviet leader."

Jaruzelski, who headed the Polish government from 1981 to 1985, acknowledged that errors were made in pursuing an ideology that he believed in.

"I see how many mistakes we made, how many sins we committed - that I committed, too," he said. "But we've been pushed into a position in which we say it was all bad, that we moved from a country of absolute evil to a country of absolute universal good.

"Not everything was bad then - there were good things, such as social safety net - and not everything now is good, because with the economy and democracy, there are things that worry us and even anger us."

He has been out of active politics for almost 20 years and now describes himself as a social democrat. He said he is proud of Poland's achievements since 1989, joining NATO in 1999 and the European Union five years later.

And in a wry reference to the hardships of communism, he added that he also likes "that the shops are full of goods."

He has been stung for years by accusations that he was a Moscow-backed traitor to his nation and insists he is a Polish patriot.

Raised in a family of landed gentry, Jaruzelski was deported with his family to Siberia by the Red Army during World War II. There, he was struck by snow blindness, and his father died.

He joined the Polish military attached to the Soviet army and fought the Nazis, later embracing communism. He said he was attracted by an ideology that seemed to address the terrible injustice and inequality he'd seen in prewar Poland.