VILNIUS (Reuters) - A trial opened in Lithuania on Wednesday against dozens of former Soviet military officials accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity in a 1991 crackdown against the Baltic state’s pro-independence movement.
Russia has refused to cooperate with the investigation and most of the accused, who live outside Lithuania, will stay away from the trial, which coincides with heightened tensions between Moscow and Vilnius over the Ukraine crisis.
Fourteen civilians were killed by the Soviet army in January 1991, prosecutors say, all but one of them during the storming of the state television headquarters and TV tower by Soviet paratroopers. More than 700 others were wounded.
Lithuania had become the first Soviet republic in March 1990 to declare independence from Moscow. The Soviet Union was formally dissolved in December 1991.
Former Soviet defense minister Dmitry Yazov, 91, is the highest-ranking person in the list of 65 former military officials and army officers charged by Lithuania’s general prosecutor. They are all citizens of Russia, Belarus or Ukraine.
Two of the accused were present at Wednesday’s proceedings. One of them, former tank commander Yuri Mel, 47, who was arrested in 2014 while on a shopping trip in Vilnius, was handcuffed and heavily guarded in the courtroom.
The second man, former Soviet munitions officer Gennady Ivanov, 64, lives in Vilnius and voluntarily cooperated with prosecutors. He told reporters the Russian embassy in Vilnius had hired a lawyer for him, saying he was too poor to afford one himself.
Mel and Ivanov both say they are innocent.
The other accused were represented by mostly court-appointed lawyers who have had no contact with their clients.
Like Russia, Belarus has refused to cooperate with the investigation, while Ukraine has agreed to question five accused people living in that country, prosecutors said.
Lithuania, now a member of NATO and the European Union, has strongly criticized Russia’s recent actions in Ukraine, including its 2014 annexation of Crimea.
“The attitude of both the Russian Federation and Belarus toward this criminal case is known and is obvious: these countries do not want their citizens to be put on trial,” presiding judge Ainora Kornelija Maceviciene told the court.
Prosecutors are investigating whether to charge then-Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, now aged 84, and a decision is likely by the summer, investigating prosecutor Daiva Skorupskaite-Lisauskiene told Reuters.
The Russian embassy in Vilnius declined to comment on the case but said the Foreign Ministry in Moscow would issue a statement later on Wednesday. Russia protested in 2014 when Lithuania arrested and charged Mel.
Reporting By Andrius Sytas; Editing by Alistair Scrutton and Gareth Jones