Polish priest Jerzy Popieluszko pleaded in terror for his life after being kidnaped by security police, one of his confessed killers testified in court today.
On the second day of an extraordinary murder trial of four interior ministry policemen, an unidentified deputy interior minister was implicated in the plot, which led to the death two months ago of the outspoken Warsaw cleric. Two other priests who, like Popieluszko, have continued to champion the banned Solidarity trade union movement, were reported by one of the accused also to have been targeted for death.
Providing graphic details of the abduction and killing of the 37-year-old frail churchman, former lieutenant Leszek Pekala told a shocked courtroom how Popieluszko had tried to escape from his kidnapers screaming, "Help me, help me; spare my life, you people" in a parking lot, but was beaten senseless four times before his lifeless body was thrown, with stones tied to its feet, into a reservoir on the Vistula River.
Pekala stressed in his defense that he and his partner, ex-lieutenant Waldemar Chmielewski, were obeying orders from their captain, Grzegorz Piotrowski, who, according to the prosecution, was motivated by hatred of Popieluszko and frustration with government efforts to silence the priest.
The three policemen, who served in the Interior Ministry department responsible for monitoring church activities, have been charged with Popieluszko's murder, and their superior, former colonel Adam Pietruszka, is accused of encouraging and assisting in the crime and of trying to cover up for the three officers afterward.
Under interrogation today by a public prosecutor in the Torun provincial court, Pekala disclosed that his boss, Piotrowski, had mentioned plans also to murder the Rev. Henryk Jankowski, a close friend of Solidarity leader Lech Walesa, and Warsaw priest Stanislaw Malkowski. The captain was quoted by Pekala as saying that Jankowski was "an old troublemaker" but that Popieluszko would have to be dealt with first. Pekala said that Piotrowski had advised him and Chmielewski not to ask too many questions and to leave responsibility for the undertaking to him.
Probing for other higher-ups who may have been aware of the planned assault on Popieluszko, the presiding judge, Artur Kujawa, challenged Pekala to confirm testimony given during pretrial questioning to the effect that Piotrowski had told him and Chmielewski that a deputy minister in the Interior Ministry had signed off on the murder.
Senior government officials repeatedly have suggested that a broader conspiracy possibly lay behind the crime with the purpose of upsetting Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski's leadership. But so far no one above Pietruszka's former rank of colonel has been tied to the case.
In court, Pekala backed away from his earlier remarks, denying that he was told a deputy minister had ordered the mission but saying that he had heard from Piotrowski that a deputy minister -- whose name he was never given -- was supporting some sort of action to curb Popieluszko.
"It is true that Piotrowski mentioned one of the deputy ministers, but he said it in a different context, which indicated that an action against Father Popieluszko should be undertaken," Pekala said. "I mistakenly understood this to mean an illegal action."
Sounding remorseful, Pekala told the court that he has realized that his initial impression if high-level support for the action against Popieluszko was "only an illusion."
The Interior Ministry, which controls Poland's uniformed and plainclothes police forces, has six deputy ministers. Jaruzelski appointed a new one last weekend and told a meeting of the communist party's central committee that a full-scale personnel review was underway at the ministry.
Pekala, 32, was described by court observers as speaking slowly and sticking closely to the argument that he had not intended to kill Popieluszko but was forced to under orders.
Only seven western correspondents have been allowed to attend the trial, and this report is based on pooled reports.
The priest was seized near Torun along with his driver, Waldemar Chrostowski, on the night of Oct. 19. The driver escaped by leaping from the kidnapers' car, while the priest lay gagged and tied in the trunk. Popieluszko's body was found in a reservoir southeast of Torun on Oct. 30.
Pekala, who was driving the abductors' car, said he pulled off the road several times to beat Popieluszko, who was banging on the trunk. They also stopped once to buy oil at a service station after their car developed a leak.
"When we stopped at a hotel parking lot, the priest jumped out of the trunk," Pekala told the court. "Popieluszko had managed to untie himself and jumped out. He ran off into the parking lot screaming."
After recapturing the priest, the kidnapers drove to a dam on the Vistula river near Wloclawek, where, Pekala said, Piotrowski ordered him to attach a sack of stones to Popieluszko's feet. When the two lieutenants protested that the priest had "suffered enough" and suggested he be left in the forest, Pekala said, Piotrowski replied: "No, only the water."
Driving back to Warsaw, the kidnapers, who were in civilian clothes, were stopped twice for routine road checks by regular militia, but the trunk of their car was never searched -- a fact Pekala attributed to a special Interior Ministry pass that Piotrowski flashed.
Long reports on the first day of the court hearing were carried in the state-controlled press today, underscoring the government's interest in publicizing the proceedings. The trial was adjourned until Jan. 2.