Lithuania issues 'war crimes' warrants for three Russians

Seven border guards were killed at Myadninkai checkpoint in 1991 (Photo from
Lithuania has issued European Arrest Warrants for three Russian citizens suspected of taking part in the killing of seven Lithuanian border guards and customs officers in 1991, shortly after they declared independence.

The warrants for ex members of the OMON paramilitary police Andrey Laktionov, Cheslav Mlynnik and Aleksandr Ryzhov were signed by the former Soviet republic's Prosecutor General Darius Valys, reports Delfi. The prosecutor's office press release says that the three are suspected of committing war crimes and crimes against humanity.

The whole story dates back to1991. At the time, Lithuania – which had unilaterally declared its independence from the USSR in March 1990 – began taking on the functions of an independent state, including the erection of border checkpoints and customs. The Soviet government, which did not recognize the independence of its republic, considered the move to be illegal.

According to the testimony of a Lithuanian customs officer – Tomas Sernas – who was wounded in the incident, on July 31, 1991, a UAZ truck with four Riga OMON officers drove up to the Myadininkai border checkpoint on the border of Lithuania and Belarus. Brandishing firearms, they forced eight traffic police officers, staff members fromthe district’s security department, and members of the Lithuanian Special Forces Squad ARAS into an official trailer and shot them, wrote Kommersant daily. Sernas – who is now handicapped – became the only survivor.

On July 31, the 20-year statute of limitation for the Myadininkai murder case expired, and under Lithuanian law the case was to be closed. However, at the end of last month a Vilnius court re-qualified the case from a premeditated murder into “treatment of people prohibited by International Law” (crimes against humanity) – which has no statute of limitations.

Last week the Prosecutor General said that new indictments would soon be sent to Russia. It is very much likely that the suspects could go on trial in absentia, Delfi news agency purports.

So far, the only former OMON policemen who was sent to jail for taking part in the killings was Konstantin Mikhailov, who obtained citizenship in neighboring Latvia after the collapse of the Soviet Union. On May 11, the Vilnius District Court sentenced him to life in prison. Mikhailov pled not guilty, as he denied his participation in the shooting and planned to appeal the verdict. However, the defense had little chance for success since Vilnius was in desperate need of a guilty verdict to coincide with 20th anniversary of those events, wrote Kommersant citing observers.

Three other suspects in the Myadininkai tragedy case wanted by the Lithuanian government are believed to be living in Russia.

In early 1991, the parliament of the Lithuanian Soviet Socialist Republic announced that it was breaking away from the USSR, a decision which Moscow opposed. In protest, people took to the streets, which compelled the Soviet government to send paratroopers and the Alfa paramilitary group to restore order in the capital Vilnius.

On January 13, 1991 – when Soviet Special Forces stormed the Vilnius Television center – 16 people were killed, including one Alfa group officer. Despite the fact that several Lithuanian officials acknowledged that the casualties could have resulted from gunfire originating from the Lithuanian nationalist paramilitary organization known as Sajudis, they continued to accuse Moscow of using excessive force in handling the situation. As a result, Lithuania went on to prosecute members of the special units as well as members of the Vilnius OMON police that remained loyal to the Soviet state.

On August 23, 1999, the Vilnius District Court sentenced six people for crimes allegedly committed by the Soviet forces. Twenty three people – 21 Russians and two citizens of Belarus – remain suspects in the case to this day. All of them are wanted in Lithuania.

Last month, Lithuania sent an official request to Austria demanding that Mikhail Golovatov – ex commander of the Alfa unit and one of the suspects in the so-called “January 13” case – be extradited to the former Soviet republic. He was detained in the transit zone of the Vienna airport, but was almost immediately released, after which the man returned to Moscow. The incident sparked a row between Vilnius and Vienna. In addition, the Lithuanian Foreign Ministry issued an official note of protest, saying they suspected that Russia was applying pressure on Austria in this case.

In light of the events, the Alfa unit veterans addressed President Dmitry Medvedev with a letter complaining about the unjust criminal prosecution of the former colonel.

“Everyone is aware of the numerous facts testifying to the Lithuanian side’s attempts to rewrite the history of both the Great Patriotic War and the USSR era in order to paint Russia as an occupant. We ask you to give your estimation of such charges against Russian citizens that touch upon Russia’s interests, and also the honor and dignity of Alfa veterans,” the letter reads.

Medvedev's press-secretary Natalya Timakova told Interfax news agency that “The President’s position is that Russia has always protected and will continue to protect its citizens.”She added that the inadequate position of the Lithuanian authorities, who have tried to lay the blame for the actions of an already non-existent state on Russian citizens, is a cause for bewilderment.