Key Points:

One of Poland's most acclaimed and respected writers, Ryszard Kapuscinski, has been posthumously "outed" as a spy for the communist-era secret police and his reputation tarnished forever.

His works, based on his travels in Africa and Latin America, including his best-known book, The Emperor, chronicling the downfall of Ethiopian dictator Haile Selassie, had him tipped for the Nobel Prize.

Kapuscinski died in January at 74, but his outing, in a Polish magazine last week, has prompted an outraged denial from his widow, and is the latest damaging leak to emerge from the Institute of National Remembrance where secret files are held.

Poland has unfinished business with its Soviet-era past, and the stage-managed leaks by historians with access to the archives are part of a political war as the country moves to expose collaborators almost two decades after the fall of communism.

The debate, now focusing on whether the 85km of secret files should be thrown open, has split families and the political elite. The turmoil has divided the historic figures of the Solidarity movement, the trade union which opened the way to democracy in Poland.

As Adam Michnik - a former Solidarity leader who is now editor-in-chief of the country's largest newspaper - has put it: "Today, two Polands confront each other. A Poland of suspicion, fear and revenge is fighting a Poland of hope, courage and dialogue."

"Let's finish the job," says Pawel Kowalewski, an artist who now heads an advertising agency. He believes the secret police files should be opened, no matter how painful for individuals and society.

"I want to know if my daughter is being educated by a guy who used to work for the political police."

His ex-wife, marketing executive Nina Kowalewska-Motlik, is equally adamant that the files should remain secret.

"They should bury them in a vault for 50 years until everyone concerned is dead. It serves no purpose. Poles should be looking to the future, now that we are in Europe, not to the past," she says.

The issue came to a head after a new vetting law came into effect in March which provided for 53 categories of workers - including journalists, politicians, academics, lawyers and the board members of publicly listed companies to fill out a declaration on whether they had collaborated with the political police.

The law applied to around 700,000 Poles born before August 1, 1972, as well as foreigners and foreign companies working in the country.

Those who admitted to past collaboration were expected to provide details in the questionnaire. Those who refused to sign by May 15 - or who were caught lying about their past - would lose their posts and be banned from public office for 10 years.

The law was a result of a campaign promise by the Kaczynski twins - President Lech Kaczynski and Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski - who pledged a "moral renewal" would deal with Poland's communist demons once and for all by purging from public life the "reds under the bed".

The conservative leaders, egged on by young politicians who saw an opportunity for advancement, maintained that an earlier attempt had not been sufficient to end the influence of the corrupt communist elite who had recycled their talents and freshened up their CVs.

A political storm ensued amid fears of a witch hunt. Some said many documents in the Institute for Public Remembrance could not be trusted, or had already been destroyed.

University rectors were up in arms and journalists predicted the end of freedom of speech as the climate of suspicion deepened.

Cardinal Dziwisz of Krakow entered the fray, saying there could be no place in Poland "for retribution, revenge, lack of respect for human dignity and reckless accusations".

But just before the May 15 deadline, the constitutional court stepped in and struck down the essence of the law. Now, the country is waiting to see whether Prime Minister Kaczynski, a former Solidarity figure, will make good on a threat to throw open the files completely.

Seated in a hotel dining room in the mountain resort of Zakopane, a two-hour drive from Krakow, Pawel Kowalewski is engaged in a heated argument over lunch with his ex-wife about the botched vetting law.

He explains he had to visit the secret police during the communist era to get a passport. But that did not make him a collaborator, he insists. He refused to sign the vetting law declaration - exposing himself to the sack.

"I wrote to the dean of the Academy of Fine Arts, saying that after 25 years I could not sign such a declaration," he said. Luckily the dean did not react before the law was struck down.

Iremeusz Bobocski, a 55-year-old professor of logic and semiotics at Krakow's Jagiellonian University, wrestled with his conscience over his own personal dilemma. He studied in Holland in the late 1970s, and therefore had to get a passport and visit the secret police.

"I had to write that, if someone was against Poland, I would report it to the Polish embassy. Of course I never did anything. But I had to sign a paper - and that paper is in the files."

Bobocski thought long and hard about signing the vetting declaration.

"I did sign," he says, "but I said I didn't know if I was an informer or not - because of the problem of the file saying so."

One of the most prominent Poles to refuse to sign the declaration was Bronislaw Geremek, a founder member of Solidarity and former Polish Foreign Minister who is now a member of the European Parliament.

He was warned that he faced losing his mandate because of his refusal to co-operate. The EU assembly strongly supported Geremek, 75, who argued that the law was undemocratic.

Although Solidarity was infiltrated by the political police, there has never been a suggestion that Geremek was a collaborator.

Other leaders of Solidarity have spoken out. Lech Walesa, the Gdansk electrician who became President of Poland, is a strong supporter of throwing open the files.

Pending a government decision on the way forward, the court ruling has left an uneasy limbo, and tens of thousands of people have filled out the forms before the deadline.

"The court decided that the forms were unconstitutional, so that means that those who signed them have carried out an unconstitutional act," said a bemused Polish official.

The debate is not just affecting the generation which grew up under communism. On the streets of Krakow, some students had strong opinions on each side of the argument, although one group of film students decided the collapse of the vetting law was hilarious. "It's a farce," said one.

Damian Szparaga, a 22-year-old English student, argued the issue was "important for the future. Many in the public sector should be 'lustrated'," he said, referring to the vetting law, known as lustration in Poland for its ceremonial purification of the collaborators.

But IT student Przemek Dziedzic said it was too late. "Communism is long gone; it should have been done earlier," he said.

Supporters of the vetting law contend that Poland had never de-communised properly. When Walesa became President, he resisted calls for opening the intelligence archives because it risked destabilising the country's fragile democracy after decades of Soviet rule.

But the outing of prominent Poles through media leaks has increased the pressure for the files to be opened.

Kapuscinski was the latest in a series of leading figures to be fingered as a communist-era collaborator.

The Archbishop of Warsaw, Stanislaw Wielgus, abruptly resigned last January at a Mass meant to celebrate his new position, only moments before his inauguration, after newspapers accused him of having been a police informer for decades from the late 1960s.

His admission that he had been a collaborator stunned the deeply devout Catholic country.

Poles are wondering how many other families will be torn apart by suspicion and innuendo before the Government decides how to proceed with the purge of former collaborators.

Meanwhile, the Kacsynski brothers have opened another can of worms by proceeding with the prosecution of General Wojciech Jaruzelski for the 1981 introduction of martial law in Poland to suppress Solidarity. Poland's last communist leader, who is now 83, has been charged with "communist crimes".

"I am very sorry; it is so late for Poland," Kowalewski said. "The tragedy for us is being first," he added, referring to the country's place in history by becoming the first in the Soviet bloc to negotiate the collapse of Communism in early 1989.

Unlike Poland, East Germany came to terms with the dark legacy of the Soviet era by opening the secret police files to their victims months after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

"It's a mess," said a Warsaw-based western diplomat with studied euphemism. Kapuscinski must be turning in his grave.

- Independent