Austrian press welcomes EU backing in Lithuanian spat

20th July 2011, Comments 0 comments

Austrian newspapers on Wednesday hailed the backing of Europe's justice commissioner Viviane Reding over Vienna's speedy release of a Russian wanted by Lithuania for 1991 war crimes.

"EU Justice Commissioner says Austria in the right," the daily Die Presse trumpeted on its front page, while Der Standard added "Vienna's actions in line with law for Commissioner Reding."

Lithuania has accused Austria of kow-towing to Russia after a Russian suspect, wanted by Vilnius for war crimes and crimes against humanity, was arrested and again quickly released by authorities in Vienna last week.

Mikhail Golovatov led a Soviet elite unit that stormed the TV tower in Vilnius on January 13, 1991 amid efforts to cow Lithuania after its 1990 secession from the Soviet Union. At least 14 civilians died and hundreds were injured in the incident.

Arrested on a European warrant late Thursday, Golovatov was released on Friday afternoon after less than 24 hours, with Vienna insisting Lithuania was not forthcoming with additional information needed to place the Russian under detention pending extradition.

Vilnius, in retaliation, recalled its ambassador to Vienna and along with fellow Baltic states Latvia and Estonia, sent a letter of complaint to their EU partners and EU justice chief Viviane Reding.

At a meeting of EU justice ministers in Sopot, Poland on Tuesday however, Reding appeared to back Austria's move.

Under the European arrest warrant law, "the receiving country can exclude from the scope of the arrest warrant, crimes committed before a certain date," she told journalists.

"That was the case for this specific question because the crimes were committed in 1991 but the implementation of the arrest warrant for Austria started only after 2002."

"From a legal point of view Austria did not have to implement the arrest warrant. So legally this question is very clear," she went on.

However, Reding qualified her statement, noting that besides the legal justification, there was also a political aspect to take into account and that she had expressed this view to the Austrian and Lithuanian ministers of justice in Sopot, urging further cooperation between the two countries.

For Klaus Schwaighofer, a law professor at Innsbruck University, Austria's judiciary could have taken other measures to have more time to study Golovatov's case, without immediately releasing him.

"You can seize a passport, make a person post bail, so that they remain in the country," he told AFP.

© 2011 AFP

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