World News

Lithuania presses charges over deaths in 1991 Soviet crackdown

VILNIUS (Reuters) - 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 on Monday.

The General Prosecutor filed the charges against former officials of the Soviet Communist Party, defence and interior ministries and the KGB security police.

The decision comes at a time when relations between Lithuania and its former Soviet master, Russia, are already tense because of the conflict in Ukraine, which has fanned fears in the Baltic states that Moscow could seek to regain its lost influence in the region.

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. All three nevertheless won independence later in 1991 as the Soviet Union collapsed, and became members of NATO and the European Union in 2004.

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.

Reporting by Nerijus Adomaitis; additional reporting by Andrius Sytas; Editing by Mark Trevelyan