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Former Soviet Defense Chief Convicted Of War Crimes In 1991 Vilnius Crackdown


A Lithuanian demonstrator stands in front of a Soviet tank in January 1991.

A Lithuanian court has convicted a former Soviet military chief and a senior KGB officer of committing war crimes and crimes against humanity during Moscow's 1991 crackdown on the country’s independence movement.

In a March 27 ruling, the Vilnius Regional Court sentenced former Soviet Defense Minister Dmitry Yazov in absentia to 10 years in prison. Former KGB officer Mikhail Golovatov was sentenced in absentia to 12 years in prison.

Yazov and Golovatov were the most prominent of 67 defendants in the trial over the momentous events that unfolded in Vilnius in January 1991, when the Soviet Union's government tried to halt the country's collapse by cracking down on the first republic to declare independence.

The verdicts followed three years of proceedings focusing on the deaths of 14 people killed by the Soviet Army in the Lithuanian capital that month.

Lithuanian prosecutors say all but one of the victims died during the storming of the state television headquarters and TV tower by Soviet paratroopers on January 13, 1991. More than 700 other people were wounded.

Judge Ainora Maceviciene sentenced the other 64 defendants -- all citizens of Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine -- to prison terms ranging from four to 12 years. All but two were sentenced in absentia.

Two former Soviet military officers who were present at the trial, Russian citizens Gennady Ivanov and Yury Mel, were present at the trial, were sentenced to four and seven years in prison respectively.

Ivanov, a Vilnius resident who is not behind bars, has the right to appeal and will be imprisoned after the verdict enters into force. Mel, who has been in the Lithuanian custody since he was arrested in 2014 while entering the Baltic country from Russia, was handcuffed and escorted from the courtroom by a guard.

Yazov, now 94 years old, was the last marshal of the Soviet Union and Soviet defense minister in 1987-1991. He is one of two remaining members of a group of plotters who tried to take over the disintegrating Soviet Union in 1991 by sidelining its leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, in an attempted coup that collapsed after three days in August 2, 1991.

After the coup failed, Yazov was arrested and spent time in pretrial detention until 1993. He was pardoned by the Russian President Boris Yeltsin in 1994.

Golovatov, 69, a retired colonel, was the commander of the KGB military unit known as Alpha Group or Spetsnaz in 1991-92. The group under his command took part in the 1991 crackdown in Vilnius.

In October 2016, the court summoned Gorbachev to testify at the trial as a witness, but Russia rejected the request and refused to participate in the proceedings.

In March 1990, Lithuania became the first of the 15 Soviet republics to declare independence. The country fell apart over the course of the next two years and ceased to exist in December 1991, when Gorbachev resigned.

Lithuania joined the European Union and NATO in 2004, as did its Baltic neighbors Latvia and Estonia. The three Baltic states were independent until 1940, when they were occupied by the Soviet Union and annexed in an act never officially recognized by the United States.

The March 27 rulings could further strain relations between Vilnius and Moscow.

With reporting by Delfi, Interfax, Reuters, and AFP
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