Lithuania convicts Soviet-era officials of 1991 'war crimes'


Vilnius (AFP)

A Lithuanian court on Wednesday convicted a former Soviet defence minister and dozens of other Russian citizens in absentia of war crimes over Moscow's deadly 1991 crackdown on the Baltic state's independence movement.

Ex-minister Dmitry Yazov, now 94, was sentenced to 10 years in prison over the assault, which killed 14 civilians and wounded over 700 in January 1991.

Sixty-six other defendants, who were senior officials in the military, communist party and the KGB security police, received sentences ranging from four to 14 years.

Russia and Belarus have refused to extradite suspects. Moscow also rejected a Lithuanian request to question ex-Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and had dubbed the trial "illegal".

Only two of the accused ? both Russian citizens and former Soviet military officials ? heard the verdict in a packed courtroom in the Lithuanian capital Vilnius.

Russian citizen Yuri Mel, a former tank officer in custody in Lithuania since 2014 when he was detained at border checkpoint, was sentenced to seven years behind bars.

A Vilnius resident and former Soviet munitions officer Gennady Ivanov was sentenced to four years.

The verdict is not final and is subject to appeal.

A Russian embassy spokesman told AFP on Wednesday that Moscow would comment after the verdict will be read in full.

Most of the convicts are Russian citizens while several hold Belarussian and Ukrainian passports.

The court was expected to announce the motives behind the sentences on Wednesday afternoon.

- 'Historic day' -

The January 13, 1991 assault on key buildings shielded by tens of thousands of peaceful independence supporters was part of failed Kremlin efforts to bring Lithuania to heel after its March 1990 secession from the Soviet Union.

Ever since Lithuania finally won recognition from Moscow as an independent state in September 1991, it has sought justice for victims of the crackdown.

While several Lithuanian Soviet-era officials have been convicted, other suspects have remained out of reach in Russia and Belarus.

"This is a historic day for Lithuania and the whole international community," Robertas Povilaitis, whose father was killed during the assault, told reporters in the courtroom.

He also slammed the Russian leadership and Gorbachev for demonstrating they "did not want to contribute to justice and answer very important questions".

Ties between Russia and Lithuania, a nation of 2.8 million, have been rocky since independence, and notably since the Baltic state joined the European Union and NATO in 2004.