Soviet veteran convicted for war crimes in Latvia dies

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An 89-year-old Soviet veteran whose conviction by a Latvian court for World War II crimes was slammed by Moscow has died, his political supporters said Friday.

Vasily Kononov died in Riga on Thursday, said the For Human Rights in United Latvia party, which spearheaded his failed campaign to overturn his criminal conviction.

"In 1998, attempting to rewrite World War II history, Latvian authorities picked Kononov as a target," claimed the party.

In 2000, a court found Latvian-born Kononov guilty of war crimes in a 1944 raid by Soviet partisans in a village where nine civilians, including a pregnant woman, were shot.

According to prosecutors, the victims were peaceful civilians, but Kononov argued they collaborated with Nazi German forces.

The decorated Red Army veteran received a reduced prison sentence of one year and eight months on the grounds of his frail health and old age.

Having served enough time on remand, he was released. After leaving prison, he became a Russian citizen.

In a tribute Friday Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said Kononov had "selflessly fought" against the Nazis.

"All his life he stayed loyal to his comrades-in-arms and protected the truth about the events of those years," he said in a statement posted on the Kremlin website.

In a separate statement, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin hailed a "courageous man, strong in spirit."

"With great honour, he went through all the experiences that were imposed on him. To the end he preserved faith in his ideals," he said.

After failing to clear his name in Latvia, in 2004 Kononov turned to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France.

He alleged his rights were violated by the criminalisation of past acts after Latvia regained independence from the crumbling Soviet Union in 1991.

He won his case in 2008 but Latvia appealed. In May 2010 the European court overturned the earlier ruling, sparking Kremlin condemnation.

The Kononov case was a stark reminder of a painful era in Latvia.

The Baltic republic was seized by the Soviet Union in 1940 under a deal with Nazi Germany.

After Germany ripped up the pact and invaded Soviet territory in 1941 -- a fact welcomed by some Latvians because it halted a brutal Soviet crackdown -- fighters such as Kononov waged a guerrilla war.

The Red Army drove out the Nazi troops in 1944 and took back control.

Disputes over the past have kept Latvian-Russian relations rocky since independence, heightened by allegations by Russia of attempts to rewrite the history of the Soviet Union's role in World War II.

Latvia, meanwhile, has repeatedly pushed Moscow to acknowledge wrongdoing during the war and the subsequent decades of Soviet rule.

© 2011 AFP

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