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Europe

Polish Secret Police List Opens Old Wounds

Unlike Germany, Poland hasn't opened up its Communist-era secret file archives to the public. Now, an Internet publication by a Polish journalist of a list containing names of informers and victims has sparked uproar.

The National Remembrance Institute archive in Warsaw

No other topic attracts more fierce debate these days in Poland than the "Wildstein List." It refers to the publication on the Internet by Polish journalist Bronislaw Wildstein of a list containing 240,000 names of former agents of the secret service police, covert informers and proven victims of the former communist regime's elaborate espionage network.

Wildstein is reported to have carted off the list from the archives of the country's National Remembrance Institute -- a Polish version of Germany's secret police archive, set up to investigate one of the biggest domestic espionage systems in history -- and unlawfully copied and posted it on the Internet.

According to conservative Polish daily Rzeczpospolita, whose payrolls Wildstein was on as an editor until recently, the Internet page displaying the list is the most-viewed site in Poland currently, receiving up to 100,000 clicks daily.

Polish state under pressure

The publication of the Wildstein list, which is almost 50 pages long, is now expected to increase pressure on the Polish state to open up its communist-era secret police archives. The whole issue has triggered an angry debate in the country and is being called the worst secret police scandal in post-Cold War Poland.

Until now, Poland has largely kept its communist-era secret files tightly under wraps, raising criticism that the country has not done enough to confront its past.

In Germany, two million applications were filed by people wanting to have a look at the files that were kept on them by the East German secret police, the Stasi, and 40,000 similar applications in the Czech Republic. In Poland, just 14,000 such requests have been registered, where citizens have been allowed to look at their files since July 2000.

Shedding light on murky past

The Wildstein list is expected to provide further fuel for what is already a explosive debate in Poland about learning the true identity of former informers and members of the secret police who have took up ordinary jobs in the government and the private sector after the Iron Curtain fell.

Poland's secret police, known as the SB, has much in common with other secret police agencies in former communist countries in that it was known for its brutality and kept tabs on much of the population. The SB had records on some 98,000 "secret spies" in 1988, shortly before the fall of Communism.

Today, Poland has legislation whereby all members of parliament, judges and high-ranking officials have to state whether they worked with the former secret police before they take up their posts. If they are found to be lying, they lose their positions.

However, that legislation doesn't apply to the media and private industry, where people have been tacitly expected to draw a line under their pasts. But the publication of the Wildstein list has added pressure to out even those in the private sector who had past dealings with the SB.

List sparks panic

The list's posting on the Internet has also sent alarm bells ringing through Poland's existing secret service because it contains the names of agents who are still active.

Polish Prime Minister Marek Belka has already demanded the Polish secret service ensure that agents on active duty aren't affected by the Wildstein revelations.

The publication of the list -- which contains names of both spies and ordinary citizens who were observed -- has also incensed certain Poles who fear that their unknowing relatives or friends might be mentioned in the same breath as the agents. "Now everybody is going to panic. That's going to lead to a lot of confusion," Jerzy Brykczynska, an engineer in Warsaw, told German daily Berliner Morgenpost.

Fear of false claims

Journalist Wildstein, who has already been fired by his paper Rzeczpospolita for mixing journalism with politics, has insisted that not everybody on the list were members of the secret police.

"I don't want to morally lynch anyone," he said. "Nobody has said that it's only a list of agents."

But, some remain unconvinced. Leon Kieres, head of the National Remembrance Institute warned of a looming witch hunt and accused Wildstein of being irresponsible.

"If someone talks of a secret service list then he's responsible for those whom the institute has recognized as 'victims', but also for those who as party officials or secret service members are not on the list," he said.

Grzegorz Szetyna of the Liberal-Conservative Citizens' Platform said the list would lead to further misuse of secret service files. "We're going to witness an ever increasing number of sensational claims that will surface on the Internet and in the media," said Szetyna. "But, we'll never be sure whether they've been investigated or whether they're false."

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