On December 13, 1981, communist-era strongman Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski imposed martial law to stifle rising opposition, headed by the Solidarity movement.
It was the start of a dark chapter in modern Polish history that saw thousands of opposition activists jailed and dozens killed.
'A junta of thuggish emissaries from Moscow'
President Andrzej Duda on Monday handed out state decorations to former anti-communist opposition activists during a ceremony in Warsaw.
Photo: PAP/Mateusz Marek
Speaking at the event at the former Rakowiecka Prison in the Polish capital in the afternoon, he called the communist regime led by Jaruzelski "a junta of thuggish emissaries from Moscow."
He said Jaruzelski was "an ordinary coward and a traitor ... not, as some argue, a hero who saved Poland and the Polish people" from Soviet intervention thanks to his 1981 crackdown.
President Andrzej Duda speaks at a ceremony marking the 40th anniversary of the imposition of martial law by Poland's former communist authorities. Photo: PAP/Mateusz Marek
Tributes to victims of communist oppression
Earlier in the day, officials led by Polish conservative leader Jarosław Kaczyński placed flowers at the grave of Father Jerzy Popiełuszko, a Catholic priest who was killed by communist-era secret police.
Polish conservative leader Jarosław Kaczyński (right) attends a ceremony in which flowers are placed at the grave of Father Jerzy Popiełuszko, a Catholic priest killed by communist-era secret police, as Poland marks the anniversary of the 1981 declaration of martial law. Photo: pis.org.pl/Facebook
A separate ceremony, led by the Polish president shortly after midnight, honoured Grzegorz Przemyk, a high school student who was beaten to death by Poland's communist-era police.
President Andrzej Duda (centre) attends a ceremony after midnight at a plaque in Warsaw commemorating Grzegorz Przemyk, a high school student beaten to death by Poland's communist-era police. Photo: PAP/Tomasz Gzell
Religious services and a host of other tributes were also held throughout the day at various sites to honour the victims of the communist-era crackdown.
'Light of Freedom'
In a closing tribute, many Poles lit candles in the windows of their homes in a symbolic gesture to commemorate the victims of communist oppression, news outlets reported.
The nationwide "Light of Freedom" tribute, attended by the president, was held in central Warsaw at 7:30 p.m.
Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said in a Facebook post that "the most important thing is not to let the tragic history of the martial law period evaporate from the memory of future generations."
According to a parliamentary report compiled at the start of the 1990s, more than 90 people were killed during martial law, which lasted formally until July 22, 1983.
On the night of December 13, 1981, more than 6,500 opposition activists were arrested and interned.
During martial law Poland’s communist regime suspended political and workers’ organisations and introduced a curfew.