Meri's cousin charged with genocide

  • 2007-08-29
  • By Joel Alas

THE OTHER MERI: Arnold Meri, in full Red Army regalia, celebrated Soviet Victory Day in Tallinn this May 9.

TALLINN - They were two cousins who stood on opposing sides of a rift that continues to split Estonian society today.

One, the nation's independence hero and beloved first president Lennart Meri, was laid to rest under an outpouring of grief.

The other, his cousin Arnold Meri, a loyal Communist and decorated Red Army veteran, is now awaiting trial under Estonia's first-ever charge of genocide.

Exactly what Lennart thought of Arnold remains unknown. Prior to his death in 2006, Lennart never made public statements about his cousin 's some say out of fear of interfering with the twelve-year investigation into Arnold's alleged war crimes.

That investigation came to a head on Aug. 22, when prosecutors finally laid an official charge against Arnold Meri, now an 88-year-old pensioner living in Tallinn.

Prosecutors allege Meri took part in the March 1949 mass deportation of Estonians to Siberia 's in particular, that he supervised the removal of some 251 civilians from the island of Hiiumaa.

During their investigations police took statements from 80 witnesses 's 74 of them surviving victims of the deportation. Their statements will be tendered to the court, and survivors could be called upon to tell their stories during the trial.

The trial is sure to be closely followed in Estonia, not the least because of Meri's high-profile relative.
During his service as a Red Army soldier in World War II, Meri was awarded the Gold Star of the Hero of the Soviet Union, one of the highest decorations in the country. He was further awarded the Order of Lenin in 1948, an even greater Soviet honor. He served as deputy minister of education in the Estonian SSR in 1961.

In 1949, Meri was a member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Estonia, and the first secretary of the Estonian branch of Komsomol, the youth wing of the Communist Party.

On the night in question, March 25, a total of 251 civilians were rounded up and detained on Hiiumaa. They were taken to the mainland port of Paldiski by boat the next morning, and were later boxed into railcars and sent to Siberian gulags, joining more than 20,000 other Estonians 's 3,000 of whom perished there.

For his part, Meri said he did not expect to live long enough to face court. He told the Eesti Paevaleht newspaper that he had never denied participating in the deportations, but said his role was not what he had been accused of.

"I was sent to Hiiumaa as a commissioner of the Central Committee and my task was to make sure that no excesses took place during the deportations and that the entire activity corresponded with the laws of that time," Meri said.

"During the week that I spent there I was not able to check anything, as I was actually never shown the relevant documents."

He insisted that only one of his actions could be interpreted as having contributed to the deportations 's his chartering of the ship. Meri said he contacted the Baltic Fleet to find a suitable ship in order to ensure the humane transportation of the prisoners.

"I cannot understand how you can call it genocide when one helps people who fell victim to genocide," Meri's defense lawyer Sven Sillar told Kanal 2 television.

Meri said he did not believe he would live more than two years. "I'm virtually deaf and blind. I just measured my blood pressure, which was slightly over 200. That should do to describe my health condition."

Few have sympathy for Meri, despite his age and health. He continues to wear his Red Army uniform with pride, and as recently as May attended commemorations for the Soviet Victory Day.

The charge laid against him is that of genocide, the first time such a charge has been leveled. The Estonian Penal Code was altered in 2002 to distinguish between genocide and crimes against humanity. Meri's trial will be the first application of the new law.

When he faces court, Meri will become the 12th person in independent Estonia to face punishment for alleged war crimes. Eight other men have already been convicted for their roles in the mass deportations of the 1940s, and three for killing victims. All were aged over 70 at the time of their prosecution. Only one man ever served real jail time, while the others were punished under periods of probation.

The Security Police Board, which investigates such crimes, said one more man remained under investigation for alleged war crimes, and will face a charge once evidence is mounted against him. Another three have already been charged and are awaiting their court hearings.

Russian politicians have rushed to defend Meri. President Vladimir Putin, through his spokesman, said Meri should be spared trial because of his age and poor health.

"We are naturally very sorry that instead of looking into the future, the Estonian Government is still at war with the past," Putin's spokesman Dmitri Peskov told The New York Times.