Lithuania opens mass trial for 1991 Soviet crackdown
Jan. 27, 2016
VILNIUS, Lithuania (AP) — A mass trial has started in Lithuania against 65 former Soviet officials charged with war crimes, crimes against humanity and other offenses for their roles in a violent crackdown on the Baltic country's quest for independence in 1991.
Only two of the defendants were present in the Vilnius court Wednesday, and pleaded not guilty. Many of the others are believed to be in Russia — which refuses to hand them over — and will be tried in absentia.
They include Soviet-era political leaders, KGB and military officers and others accused of orchestrating or taking part in a Jan. 13, 1991, crackdown on pro-independence protesters in Vilnius that left 14 people dead and hundreds injured.
Hundreds of witnesses are expected to be called to testify in the trial, which could last for months.
The two defendants in court Wednesday are both Russian citizens and former paratroopers. Genady Ivanov lives in Lithuania while Yuri Mel was detained by border police while traveling from Russia in 2014. Both denied the charges, saying they were just soldiers following orders.
The show of force in Lithuania and neighboring Latvia came in the dying moments of the Soviet Union and only increased the resolve of the Baltic republics to break away from Moscow's rule.
Prosecutors have spent years working on the case, saying progress has been slowed by Russia's unwillingness to cooperate in finding suspects and extraditing them.
Lithuania's first leader after independence, Vytautas Landsbergis welcomed the start of trial, but said it was unlikely that those responsible would face justice. He also said "the main suspect was left out, it is Mikhail Gorbachev," referring to the last Soviet president.