Baltics protests Austria's release of Russian 1991 suspect

19th July 2011, Comments 0 comments

The Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia Tuesday took fellow European Union member Austria to task for releasing a Russian accused of war crimes during a 1991 Soviet crackdown.

"Despite the seriousness of the charges, Mikhail Golovatov was released within 24 hours of his detention," the trio's foreign ministers, Audronius Azubalis, Girts Valdis Kristovskis and Urmas Paet, said in a letter to counterparts across the 27-nation bloc and EU justice chief Viviane Reding.

"We understand the principle of independence of the judiciary, but we are worried about the rapidity of the decision of Austrian institutions to release this person," they said.

On Monday, Vilnius recalled its ambassador from Vienna amid blame-trading over the case of Golovatov, commander in 1991 of Soviet forces whose assault on Lithuania's independence movement claimed 14 civilian lives and injured hundreds.

Golovatov faces a life sentence if convicted in Lithuania, which like Latvia and Estonia was ruled by the Kremlin for five decades from World War II.

Speculation is raging that Russia pressured Austria to free him after he was detained Thursday at Vienna airport on an EU warrant issued by Lithuania.

Defending its move, Austria says Golovatov was freed because Lithuania failed to provide details to back up its charges in time.

Lithuania counters that it did supply them, even though it only had a few hours to fulfill Austria's request, which it says came only on Friday.

It has filed a complaint with Eurojust, the EU's legal arm.

"We emphasise that the European Arrest Warrant as an instrument of mutual trust within the EU should be effectively applied in practice in order to arrest and surrender persons, especially those involved in war crimes and crimes against humanity," the ministers said in their letter.

They said the case was a blow to "efficient international legal cooperation in criminal cases among EU member states as well as the principle of EU solidarity".

Latvia summoned Austria's ambassador for an explanation, Latvian President Andris Berzins said on a visit to Lithuania Tuesday.

"I personally was in a very similar situation in January 1991 and I fully support your country's approach and position," he added, alongside Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite.

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. On January 20, seven civilians were also killed in Latvia.

"Our nations had very similar experiences in those January days, and we fully understand the meaning of a crime against humanity and of the decision that unfortunately was taken in Austria", Grybauskaite said Tuesday.

Estonia also summoned Austria's envoy.

"We have invited the Austrian ambassador in Tallinn to the Estonian Foreign ministry to explain why Austria decided to release a man suspected in the 1991 Vilnius bloodshed," spokeswoman Minna-Liina Lind told AFP.

Moscow recognised Baltic independence after a failed August 1991 coup by hardliners in the Soviet capital. The Soviet Union was dissolved formally that December.

The trio, who joined the EU and the NATO Western military alliance in 2004, have had rocky ties with Moscow since independence.

© 2011 AFP

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