WARSAW, Poland (AP) — Few freedom fighters can claim better credentials than Lech Walesa, the Solidarity founder who battled Polish communism relentlessly for 20 years before seeing it vanquished in 1989.
Yet Walesa, still an ardent communist-basher, is now in a Warsaw court fighting suggestions that he spied on fellow dissidents for the old secret police.
Almost nobody believes it's true, but the spectacle has shocked Poles. Not only is a national hero's reputation on trial, but also Solidarity's often awkward crusade to settle scores with its old communist tormentors.
Walesa's predicament is the result of a new law requiring top officials to declare past links to the secret police. A screening court must vet their statements. There is no penalty for admitting collaboration, but anyone caught lying is barred from office for 10 years.
The 1998 law, which so far has cost at least two legislators their jobs, is being applied to presidential candidates for the first time. Walesa is among about 15 planning to run in the Oct. 8 election.
He is not alone before the screening court. President Aleksander Kwasniewski, a widely popular ex-communist who defeated Walesa for the presidency in 1995, is fighting similar allegations.
Each man has a third, and possibly final, hearing this week — Kwasniewski on Wednesday, and Walesa on Friday.
The allegations stem from old secret police documents — some are mere photocopies — forwarded to the court by the Interior Ministry. Walesa and Kwasniewski vehemently deny implications they worked as agents. Each side accuses the other of abusing the law for campaign purposes.
The screening court's rulings could have implications far beyond personal reputations.
"If we choose not to believe Walesa, but to trust former security officers, it means we have embarked on a wrong path," said Krzysztof Kozlowski, who was interior minister in 1990. "It is the posthumous revenge of the communist security services."
"Because of these dirty political games, Poland is being humbled and humiliated in the eyes of the world," fumed Adam Michnik, a former Solidarity activist and Poland's most prominent newspaper editor.
Even Prime Minister Jerzy Buzek, whose Solidarity-led government wrote the rules, calls it "a dismal joke of history," but insists the law must be followed.
Walesa, 59, may have been asking for trouble. His popularity has waned, and pollsters say he is no challenge for the telegenic Kwasniewski, who at 45 is Poland's most popular politician.
Walesa says he is confident he won't be shamed on the basis of what he maintains are phony documents, perhaps written by communist agents seeking to discredit him.
"I have always been and still am for the screening," he said. "The point is in separating truth from lies. ... This is why I humbly submit myself to the screening procedure."
While Poland is the darling of the old Soviet bloc when it comes to economic reforms, this country of 39 million has trailed most of the pack in "de-communization." Most other post-communist governments confronted the task much earlier and have worked out the worst kinks.
The Czechs approved a screening law in 1990 — and there was never a suggestion that the leader of the country's anti-communist Velvet Revolution, Vaclav Havel, be vetted in order to become president.
Two years later Germany set up a special agency to discreetly open old East German secret police files. Some political careers were ruined and there were accusations of witch-hunting, but the process has been regarded largely as fair and necessary.
Hungary's screening law, passed in 1994, has embarrassed a few politicians. But no officials have lost their jobs, and cases for the most part are handled confidentially and discreetly.
Poland has had a tougher time. Many trace the difficulties to 1992 when Walesa, then Poland's president, appeared on a supposedly confidential list of alleged collaborators. It was compiled by Interior Minister Antoni Macierewicz, a right-wing political enemy of Walesa, and leaked to the media.
Ex-communists won parliamentary elections before the list could be investigated, and efforts to deal with past communist crimes were grounded until Solidarity regained control in 1997.
Despite Solidarity's near obsession with catching up, it has lacked the clout in parliament to accomplish much. Moreover, the country seems to be losing its taste for anti-communist crusades.
Last year legislators rejected a Solidarity bill that would have banned all former communist officials from public office for 10 years. Even Walesa said that was going too far.
Efforts to allow Poles to see secret-police files on them bogged down repeatedly in political wrangling over who should oversee the process. People probably won't start seeing any files before next year — 12 years after the collapse of the old regime.