Release of accused former KGB officer prompts protests

Tue, Jul 19, 2011, 01:00

LITHUANIA HAS recalled its ambassador to Vienna after Austrian police released a former Soviet KGB officer accused of involvement in a deadly crackdown on protesters during the Baltic state’s struggle for independence in 1991.

Mikhail Golovatov led a unit of Soviet special forces that stormed the main television tower in the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius, on January 13th 1991, when it was surrounded by demonstrators who were determined to see their country break free from five decades of Kremlin control. Fourteen people were killed in the attack, and about 1,000 others injured.

Police arrested Mr Golovatov at Vienna airport last Thursday on a European arrest warrant issued by Lithuania, but he was freed the following day and allowed to fly to Russia, which does not extradite its citizens.

Austrian officials claimed that Lithuania did not make a strong enough case for them to sanction the detention of Mr Golovatov and for his possible extradition to be considered.

Lithuanian authorities vehemently deny Austria’s version of events, insisting that they sent details of the case to Vienna in English and German, detailing how Mr Golovatov faced charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity that carried a potential life sentence.

President Dalia Grybauskaite recalled her ambassador from Vienna for consultations and said: “Austria’s haste in releasing the suspect in the January 13 case cannot be politically justified and compromises co-operation between the European states in law enforcement.”

Lithuania’s foreign minister, Audronius Azubalis, who discussed the issue with Austrian counterpart Michael Spindelegger, said his compatriots “and relatives of the victims ... are waiting for a convincing explanation from Austria as to why the decision was taken and why it was taken so hastily.”

“He told me that this is an old wound for Lithuania,” Mr Spindelegger said. “I understand this ... but even in the case of old wounds, there is no getting around the fact that there are principles in a process that have to be adhered to ... There was a request, we set a deadline to highlight that with concrete details. This deadline ran out without such concrete details.”

Lithuanian justice minister Remigijus Simasius said he would raise the issue at an EU meeting in Poland today. “It’s very likely that this case is related to a political decision, and Russia’s influence in making that political decision,” he said.

Vytautas Landsbergis, a leader of Lithuania’s independence movement, said Austria had shown “subservience to Russia and a lack of a sense of honour.” This is not the first case in which Austria has been accused of bending to Russia’s will.

Vienna was strongly criticised for rejecting an appeal for police protection from Umar Israilov, who sought asylum in Austria after accusing his former boss, Kremlin-backed Chechen president Ramzan Kadyrov, of committing torture. Austrian police dismissed his request, and he was murdered shortly afterwards by Chechen hitmen. Investigators suggested that Kadyrov had ordered the killing.