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Poland’s last communist leader has told a court he had little choice but to declare martial law in 1981, but added that his action saved the country from catastrophe. General Wojciech Jaruzelksi and seven other former communist officials are on trial on charges of illegally declaring martial law and committing human rights violations.

The ex-military ruler has often argued that the 1981 declaration spared Poland the kind of Soviet military intervention that crushed pro-democracy supporters in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia a decade later.

Poland remained under martial law for two years, during which time dozens of people were killed, hundreds were jailed and the anti-communist Solidarity trade union was banned. Jaruzelski told the court in Warsaw that martial law was a necessary “evil” that averted disaster and prepared the way for democracy.

Martial law lasted for two years. Jaruzelski went on to open dialogue with the Solidarity union, starting a process that led to the fall of communism.