Reuters on August 31, 2015, reported that Lithuania has charged 66 citizens of Russia, Belarus and Ukraine with war crimes and crimes against humanity over the deaths of 13 civilians in a Soviet crackdown on the Baltic state’s pro-independence movement in 1991, prosecutors said. Excerpts below:
The General Prosecutor filed the charges against former officials of the Soviet Communist Party, defense and interior ministries and the KGB security police.
Prosecutors, however, have rejected calls to charge former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, citing a lack of evidence. They sought to question him as a witness, but Russia has declined to provide legal assistance.
The decision not to pursue Gorbachev drew ire from Vytautas Landsbergis, the pro-independence leader at the time of the deaths.
“They should go to kindergarten, to elementary school, read books about those events and read testimonies of witnesses. These are pathetic prosecutors,” Landsbergis was quoted as saying by Baltic News Service.
Apart from the 13 who were killed, more than 1,000 people were wounded when Soviet troops stormed Vilnius’s TV tower on Jan. 13, 1991. Another person died of a heart attack.
It was the deadliest action by the Soviet Army in trying to crush secessionist movements in the Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia.
While Gorbachev is widely praised in the West for acceding to Germany’s unification and launching liberal reforms in the Soviet Union, many in Lithuania blame him for not preventing the bloodshed.
The only person detained and awaiting trial over the deaths is Russian citizen Yuri Mel, a former tank officer who was arrested in March 2014 at Lithuania’s border crossing point with Russia’s Kaliningrad exclave.
Comment: This is an important move by Lithuania. The charges are in accordance with the Tallinn Joint Statement of August 23, 2015, in which a number of East European countries called for investigation of crimes of Communist regimes:
The competence of existing supranational courts does not include the investigation of past crimes committed by Communist regimes and the punishing of those guilty of them. We find it necessary to investigate the possibilities of a supranational co-operation in order to give consideration to forming a special institution to investigate the crimes of totalitarian regimes including Communist regime crimes, like the crimes of the Nazi regime were condemned and the guilty parties were punished. It is important to form an expert working group to study the issue.