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Russian Probe Targets Lithuanian Judges Over War Crimes Conviction

Former Soviet Defense Minister Dmitry Yazov was sentenced in absentia to 10 years in prison by a Lithuanian court for his role in the deadly crackdown in 1991.

Russian authorities have lashed out at Lithuania, announcing a criminal investigation into judges at a Vilnius court that convicted dozens of former Soviet army personnel, mostly in absentia, of committing war crimes and crimes against humanity during Moscow's deadly 1991 crackdown on the Baltic nation's independence movement.

In a statement on April 10, the Russian Investigative Committee said that it had launched a probe targeting Vilnius Regional Court judges Ainora Maceviciene, Aiva Suvilene, Virginia Tamosiunaite, and Arturas Sumskas on suspicion of "delivering a deliberately wrongful sentence."

The Russian investigation is unlikely to have any practical effect because the judges are in Lithuania, where it has no legal force.

It serves as a display of derision over the Lithuanian trial that ended on March 27 with convictions of 67 defendants, including former Soviet Defense Minister Dmitry Yazov, who was sentenced in absentia to 10 years in prison.

Other prominent defendants included former KGB officer Mikhail Golovatov, who was sentenced to 12 years in prison, and a former commander of the Soviet Army's 107th Motor Rifle Division, Uladzimer Uskhopchyk of Belarus, who was sentenced to 14 years in prison.

Yazov, Golovatov, Uskhopchyk, and all but two of the other defendants were tried in absentia.

The trial focused on 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 of its 15 republics to declare independence.

Lithuanian prosecutors say Soviet paratroopers killed 14 demonstrators, who defended the state television headquarters and TV tower in Vilnius, which Soviet troops stormed.

Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite praised the outcome of the trial, saying in a statement: "The guilty have been named for killings of people who peacefully protected freedom."

In March 1990, Lithuania became the first of the 15 Soviet republics to declare independence.

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.