Western correspondents in Warsaw were warned today that they face possible legal prosecution if they attend meetings of independent human rights committees recently formed to monitor allegations of police brutality.
The threat came from government spokesman Jerzy Urban at his weekly press conference and was seen as part of a concerted effort by Polish authorities to choke the development of the new committees. The groups have sprouted in Warsaw, Krakow and Wroclaw in the aftermath of the murder last month of the Rev. Jerzy Popieluszko, a pro-Solidarity Warsaw priest. Three security police officers have been charged with killing Popieluszko for political reasons.
The committees mark the political opposition's first attempt to create above-ground organizations since the crackdown on the Solidarity trade union movement three years ago. The government has declared the groups illegal and accused the founders, some of whom are senior Solidarity members, of trying to exploit Popieluszko's death to build a new opposition movement. Committee members were informed last week that they risk jail terms of up to five years if they persist.
Urban told reporters that official permission for them to remain in Poland as accredited correspondents depends on observance of certain standards of behavior. "It is forbidden to take part in illegal gatherings or in illegal activities or to support such activities," he said, indicating that contact with the human rights groups could be regarded as illegal.
But several questions about the types of meetings and circumstances that could bring a correspondent into conflict with Polish authorities -- and exactly what the penalties might be -- drew only vague or dismissive remarks. "That depends on the outcome of such a meeting and whether it will mean participation in illegal activities or not," Urban replied at one point.