WARSAW, Poland (AP) – Poland’s president on Wednesday led muted ceremonies marking the 25th anniversary of the declaration of martial law by communist-era authorities as prosecutors pushed ahead with a case against the former leader who imposed it.

Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski launched martial law on Dec. 13, 1981, and banned the Solidarity trade union, which was pushing for economic reforms and democracy.

Thousands went to jail, including Solidarity leader Lech Walesa, and Poland’s current president, Lech Kaczynski.

Just after midnight – timed to coincide with the crackdown’s start – Kaczynski awarded national honors in the western city of Wroclaw to 69 former democratic activists who opposed the communist regime.

Later Wednesday, he called the crackdown a lawless act imposed to defend the communist government, not the Polish people, as Jaruzelski has insisted.

“I would like to stress that even considering communist law, what happened the night of Dec. 12-13 was illegal,” said Kaczynski, who was arrested on the first day of martial law and jailed for some 10 months. “It was the illegal internment of thousands of people.”

He said that Poland’s battle for freedom “lasted a long time … but it ended in a great victory.”

Solidarity helped peacefully topple Poland’s communist government in 1989, making it the first nation to do so and sparking the fall of communism across eastern Europe.

The crackdown remains a topic of public debate to this day, with Jaruzelski defending the move as the only way to forestall an invasion by the Soviet Union.

In March, the Institute for National Remembrance, a state body that investigates communist-era crimes, charged Jaruzelski with violating the constitution by imposing the crackdown and the jailing of tens of thousands of people.

Poland’s previous government, ousted in September 2005 elections, was led by former communists and was reluctant to prosecute those responsible for martial law.

The new government of Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski, Lech’s twin, has vowed to make purging remaining communist influence a priority.

If convicted of all charges, the 83-year-old Jaruzelski could face up to 11 years in prison – three for violating the constitution and eight for “communist crimes.”

Early on Dec. 13, 1981, secret police and militia rounded up and jailed democratic activists. Tanks and armored transports rumbled through Polish cities, armed soldiers patrolled the streets, and authorities cut phone lines.

Nearly 100 people died during the crackdown, while tens of thousands of people were arrested without charge and some 10,000 held in internment camps.

Prosecutors have gathered some 60 volumes of documents – including papers from other former Warsaw Pact countries including Romania, Hungary and Czechoslovakia – to build their case and counter the argument that martial law saved Poland from a bloody Soviet invasion, one of the lead prosecutors told The Associated Press.

The foreign documents, combined with Polish archives, “confirm our thesis that martial law didn’t have to be imposed, but was really imposed in defense of the system at the time and not in the interests of Poles,” said Ewa Koj, a prosecutor from the Katowice branch of the Institute for National Remembrance.

Koj said the investigation is “in its final stages,” and that prosecutors plan to submit a formal indictment in court against Jaruzelski by the end of March.

However, some left-leaning politicians questioned the basis of the prosecutor’s case.

“No historian has presented proof that a Soviet intervention was impossible,” said Jerzy Smajdzinski, parliamentary leader of the ex-communist Democratic Left Alliance.

Many historians argue the communist regime legally imposed martial law, Smajdzinski said, and warned against “pursuing legal procedures purely for the sake of doing so” and hurling “accusations without confirmation in evidence.”

AP-ES-12-13-06 1037EST

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