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20 May, 2008 07:13

War hero at odds with his own country

A Soviet war hero from Estonia is tried for allegedly sending hundreds of his countrymen to Siberia in 1949. If convicted, 88-year-old Arnold Meri could spend the rest of his life behind bars.

Meri fought on the front in World War Two before seeing his homeland liberated from the Nazis by Soviet troops.

While his Russian brothers-in-arms enjoy respect and honour at home for putting their lives on the line to stop the Nazis, Arnold Meri continues to fight.

Almost blind and suffering from lung cancer, Meri would have to serve a life sentence if found guilty. The veteran calls the case political.

In 1941 Meri became the first Estonian to receive the honour of Hero of the Soviet Union, at just 22 years old.

Estonian prosecutors have not recognised the fact that Meri was stripped of his hero status in Stalin's Russia for questioning the deportation.

“He was there to see that the minimal legal responsibility was met at the time. He tried to actively interfere in what was going on but had no chance whatsoever as the deportation was being carried out by NKVD. Being unable to change anything he resigned his commission. He was stripped of all his honours after that and had to leave for Siberia to avoid being deported,” said historian Vladimir Simindey.

In 1941 while Arnold Meri was fighting Nazis at the front, his cousin Lennart Meri, who went on to serve two terms as Estonia's president in the 1990s, was sent to Siberia. It was while his cousin was in power the genocide case was brought up for investigation.

Estonia has been grappling with its demons over World War 2. When a Soviet war memorial was removed from the centre of Tallinn there were riots, amid criticism from Russia that Estonia was disrespecting liberators.

The criticism in Russia is that Meri is a victim of Estonia's uneasy relationship with its Soviet past.

“They would quite like to sue me for being a Soviet citizen but they can’t, so they found a different reason,” said Meri.

Over 70 survivors of the deportations were expected to appear at the trial to testify against Meri. However less than half that number turned up, and their opinions are divided. While some do hold Meri responsible, others say that the trial is completely meaningless.

During the war, Arnold Meri was wounded four times but refused medical assistance as he organised the line of defence against the Nazis. 67 years on, the war hero now has to defend himself against his own country.