Lithuania prosecutes ex-Soviet soldiers over Cold War crackdown | News | DW | 28.01.2016
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Lithuania prosecutes ex-Soviet soldiers over Cold War crackdown

Lithuanian authorities have opened a mass trial against 65 former Soviet officials for their role in a deadly 1991 crackdown. Only two defendants appeared in court, with many others believed to be in Russia.

The trial, which started on Wednesday, deals with the aftermath of the Soviet military push against Lithuanian independence. Moscow's show of force in Vilnius saw 14 people dead and over 1,000 more injured in January 1991.

The prosecutors claim that the 65 defendants were involved in war crimes, torture, crimes against humanity and other offenses.

However, only two defendants attended the beginning of the mass trial, both of them soldiers.

KGB officers, members of the Communist party and military leaders are also among the accused, including the last Soviet defense minister Dmitry Yazov.

Lithuanian officials intend to trial almost all of them in absentia, after Russia refused to extradite a large number of suspects.

Echoes of the Soviet era

Both of the defendants who appeared before the court are Russian citizens.

They pleaded not guilty, saying that they simply followed orders.

"I could not make any decisions on my own," former paratrooper Genady Ivanov told journalists ahead of the hearing.

Litauen Vilnius 1991 Massenprotest

The USSR fell apart less than a year after the crackdown

Ivanov also said he handed over his resignation immediately after the crackdown, adding that he cooperated with Lithuanian investigators ahead of his trial.

The ex-Soviet officer currently lives in Lithuania.

The second defendant, Yuri Mel, was arrested by border police in 2014. He was allegedly inside one of the Soviet tanks on the streets of Vilnius during the raid.

Gorbachev 'left out'

The fist leader of Lithuania after the Soviet break up, Vytautas Landsbergis, welcomed the start of the trial, but added that those responsible would probably not face justice.

He also said "the main suspect was left out, it is Mikhail Gorbachev," referring to the last Soviet president. Gorbachev resigned less than a year after the crackdown.

Hundreds of witnesses are expected to appear at the trial, which could last for several months.

dj/jr (AP, Interfax)

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