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Latvia: Riga Proceeds With Investigations, Trials Of Soviet-Era Crimes

  • Valentinas Mite

The Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia are so far the only former Soviet republics that are trying to identify and try former secret-service officers who participated in killings and deportations more than 50 years ago. Of the three countries, Latvia has been particularly active in pursuing such cases; it has already tried and sentenced several former KGB officers. Russia has objected to the trials and says they are a violation of human rights.

Prague, 20 September 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Nikolai Larionov, an ethnic Russian resident of Latvia, stands charged with "genocide against the Latvian people." Prosecutors say the 81-year-old former Soviet security officer is suspected of taking part in the deportations of Latvian citizens to Siberia in 1949.

He is the fifth resident of Latvia to be tried for crimes connected to the World War II-era deportation of nearly 50,000 Latvian citizens, thousands of whom died in Siberian camps. Prosecutors are investigating several dozen more cases.

The trials have caused an uproar in Russia. The Russian Foreign Ministry last week released a statement slamming Riga for prosecuting former officials for performing their military duties. The ministry argued that former KGB officers should not be convicted for "any action or inaction that was not subject to criminal punishment under the laws in their country" at the time it was committed.

The statement adds that, "The Latvian judicial system is once again demonstrating to the entire civilized world its disregard for the principles of universal international documents."

The criticism was echoed this week in the Russian military newspaper "Krasnaya zvezda," which likened the Latvian investigations to a "witch-hunt" and said the majority of those prosecuted are Russians. The newspaper urged human rights organizations to protest the Latvian action.

Nils Muiznieks is the director of the Latvian Center for Human Rights and Ethnic Studies. He told RFE/RL that nationality is not an issue in the trials. "Some people ask whether this is an ethnically motivated process. It should be remembered that the first person to be tried and put in jail for crimes against humanity was Alfons Noviks, who was the deputy of the commissar of Internal Affairs back in the late 1940s. So he was a Latvian," Muiznieks said.

Muiznieks said that "from the human rights perspective, crimes against humanity and war crimes should be [prosecuted] regardless of what ideology they were committed in the name of."

Sergei Kovalev is a Soviet-era dissident who is now director of the Russian Institute of Human Rights and a deputy in the Russian State Duma. He described as "cynical" the Russian Foreign Ministry's argument that former state security officials cannot be retroactively punished for what were once legal acts. He said deportation was never legal, even during the Soviet era.

Kovalev added that the guilty include not only those who handed orders but those who obeyed. "This attitude of the Russian Foreign Ministry is simply obnoxious, and a mockery. [Ministry officials] know it themselves very well. There are plenty of qualified lawyers in the ministry, and they clearly understand the case. This is state egoism, where the main concern is defending [those] they consider to be 'our guys,'" Kovalev said.

Kovalev said everyone who participated in deportations must be fairly tried in order to assure some sort of reconciliation with the crimes of the past. He said the Baltic states can provide Russia with a good model of how to deal with the issue in a legal forum. "I welcome such trials. If something like this took place in Russia itself, I would call it a first step toward society's [spiritual] recovery," Kovalev said.

Vladimir Rezun is a former Soviet military intelligence officer (GRU) who defected to the West more than 20 years ago -- a move that earned him a Soviet-era death sentence for high treason. Rezun, best known by his pen name of Viktor Suvorov, has published numerous reports about the secret services in the Soviet Union.

In an interview with RFE/RL, he dismissed the Foreign Ministry's argument that the former KGB officers who participated in the deportations are now too old to stand trial. "Applying a statute of limitations [on such cases] would be completely disgusting. [These former KGB officers] weren't thinking about human rights when they killed people -- old people and children -- and now they're talking about a statute of limitations," Rezun said.

He also said the KGB should not be compared to intelligence services in other countries, and that its crimes should not be forgotten with the passage of time. "In no other normal democratic state anywhere in the world did there exist an organization like the KGB. This was a structure directed at repressing its own people," Rezun said.

Rezun said the trials of Nazi war criminals present a good example to follow in conducting trials of former state officials for crimes against humanity committed during the Soviet era.