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Lithuania: Officials Seek Extradition Of Belarusian Minister

Belarus has recently promoted the former commander of Soviet forces in Lithuania as its deputy defense minister. The move has angered Lithuanian officials, who want to put the official on trial for murder. RFE/RL correspondent Askold Krushelnycky looks at the case and its implications for bringing other former Communists to justice.

Prague, 25 May 2000 (RFE/RL) -- In January 1991, the Soviet government responded to Lithuania's clamor for independence with military might. Soviet troops in armored vehicles were sent to occupy the television station in the center of the capital, Vilnius, and the television broadcasting tower on the city's outskirts.

Civilian pro-independence demonstrators around the tower did not believe the tanks that rumbled toward them would attack unarmed people. They were mistaken. The tanks drove into the crowd, crushing to death 13 people and injuring many others.

The commander of the Soviet force was Vladimir Uskopchik. After independence, Uskopchik fled to neighboring Belarus where he became commander of a military corps based in Bobruisk. Although the Lithuanian government had asked for his extradition to face trial for the killings, most people thought that was the last they would hear of him.

But Uskopchik's record for repression evidently appeals to Belarus's authoritarian president, Alyaksandr Lukashenka. Earlier this week, Lukashenka appointed Uskopchik to be his deputy defense minister. Some say Uskopchik could one day become defense minister. The move has enraged Lithuania, sparking an official protest from Vilnius.

The head of the Lithuanian Foreign Ministry's Eastern Europe department, Elvadas Ignatavicius, says Uskopchik's appointment goes against the spirit of forging friendly relations and could have a negative impact on bilateral relations:

"He [Uskopchik] has been accused of being commander of the tank corps which attacked our TV station when 13 people were killed, and he was directly involved in those activities."

Ignativicius says Lithuania has applied several times for Uskopchik's extradition and has warned that appointing him deputy defense minister would not warm up the already cool relations between the two governments:

"The rumors about his nomination were spread a month ago and we already then commented that such a step would be a very unfriendly gesture. But nothing followed and then this nomination took place. So then we repeated that this step could harm our relations."

Our correspondent attempted to get a response to Uskopchik's appointment from the Belarusian Foreign Ministry, but was told there was no one there who would comment.

The Baltic states have been vigorous in trying to bring to justice former communist officials whom they accuse of crimes such as repression, mass deportations, and murder.

Lithuania's intelligence services in 1994 mounted an operation that resulted in the transfer from Belarus to Lithuania of two senior members of a pro-Moscow Lithuanian Communist Party. The party tried to take power in Lithuania in 1991 with the help of the Soviet military. Its members were jailed for attempting a coup d'etat.

Lithuania's Ignativicius says that others accused of repressive acts have fled to Belarus and Russia, but that attempts to extradite them have proved fruitless.

Latvia imprisoned for eight years its last Communist Party leader, and has since put on trial several people accused of ordering mass deportations of Latvians to Siberia during Stalinist times. Estonia has also put on trial Stalinist-era officials.

The governments of some other former Soviet republics, however, have shied away from taking legal action against former officials -- either because they fear annoying Russia or because former communists still wield immense influence in their governments.

But most former Soviet republics have organizations and political parties that are keen to legally pursue former communist officials they regard as criminals. They believe such action is not only a moral obligation but necessary to rid their societies of the lingering effects of communism.

Many of those groups will be represented at a conference next month in Vilnius (June 12-15) entitled "Evaluating the Crimes of Communism." Conference organizers expect representatives from all the former communist countries as well as delegates from other nations.

The organizers say that one theme of the conference will be to compare the legal treatment of former communists with prosecutions of Nazi officials after World War II. They say not enough has been done to bring Communists to justice.

One of the organizers, Ingrida Viciulyte, says more indictments are needed:

"It is necessary that people from all the [former communist] countries should bring indictments in order to punish individuals."

She says one avenue that delegates will explore is whether an international justice tribunal under the auspices of the United Nations -- similar to the one investigating war crimes in former Yugoslavia -- would be an appropriate way of proceeding.