War hero faces Estonian life sentence

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. Russia has condemned the genocide trial against the Soviet vet

When he was just 22, Meri became the first Estonian to get the USSR’s top distinction – the Hero of the Soviet Union – for his bravery in battle. Now pushing 89, the Soviet hero’s been labeled a traitor and charged with genocide.

Arnold Meri is claimed to have organised the deportation of 251 Estonians from Hiiumaa Island off the country’s Baltic coast during a wave of Stalin’s post-war repressions.

“In the morning of the March 26, 1949, people were shipped to the mainland and then taken in specially equipped cargo carriages to Siberia for a lifelong exile,” said Kulli Kivioja, Western District Prosecutor’s Office representative.

Meri says the accusations are unjust. And even though he did take part in the deportations, his role was “to see that none of the laws are broken and nothing was stolen”.

“They would quite like to sue me for being a Soviet hero, but they can’t. So they found a different reason,” he added.

The veteran insists he acted as a check against the KGB who carried out the deportations. He claims that despite his repeated requests he never even saw the lists of names of those sent into exile or was told why they were being sent there.

His lawyer says he is absolutely sure Meri will be acquitted since “there’s absolutely no evidence against him”.

In 1941, while Meri was fighting the Nazis at the front, his cousin was sent to Siberia. And in the 1990s Lennart Meri served two terms as President of Estonia. It was then that the genocide case against Arnold Meri was brought up for investigation.

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.

Meanwhile, the veteran suffers from lung cancer and doctors will now decide whether he’s fit to stand the trial.
Estonia calls its years within the USSR an occupation. Last spring a Soviet war memorial was removed from the centre of the capital Tallinn, sparking violent riots and a diplomatic fury from Russia.