Court upholds war crimes conviction of Latvian who fought with Soviet forces during WWII

Monday, May 17, 2010

Court upholds Latvian’s war crimes conviction

BRUSSELS — Europe’s highest human rights court has upheld the war crimes conviction of a Latvian man who was found guilty of ordering the killing of nine civilians while fighting for Soviet forces in Nazi-occupied Latvia in 1944.

In Monday’s ruling, the Strasbourg-based European Court of Human Rights said its conventions were not violated by the conviction of Vasily Kononov, which was upheld by Latvia’s highest court in 2004.

It said Kononov’s Soviet commando unit killed nine unarmed Latvian villagers who were suspected of collaborating with Nazi Germany during World War II.

Latvia’s treatment of Kononov has outraged Moscow, which granted him Russian citizenship in 2000. On Monday, Russia’s government condemned the European ruling, but Latvia welcomed it.

Russia’s foreign affairs ministry said in a statement the verdict was a “dangerous precedent” that “evokes great alarm.”

State Duma member Leonid Slutsky was also quick to react. “This is not only outrageous for Europe itself, which suffered from Hitler’s yoke no less than the Soviet Union, but it also creates a negative trend for justifying the crimes of Nazi Germany,” he said.

Latvia welcomed the ruling, saying in a statement that it confirms “that responsibility for the committed crimes shall be individual and real, and that such crimes may not be justified by the perpetrator’s belonging to a certain state, political, ideological or other group.”

The killings occurred during the Nazi occupation of Latvia and Latvian courts said Kononov led a small band of pro-Soviet partisans into the village of Mazie Bati. After finding rifles and grenades, five men were executed, and one man and three women were killed in burning buildings. Kononov claimed that the civilians were caught in crossfire between the partisans and Nazis.

Kononov was sentenced to 20 months in prison, a much shorter sentence than the 12 years prosecutors had requested, but he was freed because he had already served that amount of time in pretrial detention.

Many Russians consider Kononov a war hero and Moscow has angrily criticized the trials as a witch hunt targeting a sick and elderly man. Vladimir Putin, who was Russian president then, granted Kononov Russian citizenship in 2000.

“In essence, the ECHR’s agreement with Latvia’s position … signifies an unjustifiable and politically damaging change in the court’s approach to appraising events and results of the second world war,” said the Russian statement. It added the ruling “will facilitate the further growth of the pro-Nazi and extreme nationalist forces in Europe.”

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