When it comes to controversial public relations, few things compare to putting a very elderly person on trial. The international media seize on the image of a wrinkled old man in a wheelchair struggling to defend himself, let alone breathe normally, and on the seemingly brutal idea of a huge government machine throwing its weight at a fragile human artifact.
So it wasn't at all surprising to see the high level of international interest in the case of Arnold Meri, an 88-year-old veteran whom Estonian prosecutors have accused of genocidal crimes 's no doubt the gravest crime anyone can be charged with. The fact that Meri is a cousin of the beloved Lennart Meri, Estonia's first post-Soviet president, adds an element of soap opera-drama to the story (two members of the same family, one idolized and the other vilified).
Prosecutors claim Meri deported 251 Estonians from the island of Hiiumaa in March 1949 to Siberia, where 43 eventually died. Meri is a decorated war hero, and in 1941 he was given the Hero of the Soviet Union, the highest Soviet medal. Given the time, this of course attests to a great deal of collaboration with the Soviet regime that occupied Estonia in 1940.
Meri, for his part, does not deny that he took part in the deportation, but as a Soviet bureaucrat and not a KGB agent. More importantly, he says that out of pity he tried to ensure that the deportees would be given adequate facilities for the trip from the island to the mainland (the Paldiski port). His role in the deportation, he insists, was largely humanitarian.
Meri also claims that the accusations against him are political. As he was quoted by one Russian agency, "This case is celebrating its 12th anniversary. It dies down or flares up depending on the situation. Now the people who fanned emotions around the Bronze Soldier are longing for more controversy and have found a new method to do so."
Russian news agencies love this kind of talk, and once again they have accused Estonia of everything from rewriting history to fascism. The typical Russian standpoint, highlighted by Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, is purely "humanitarian": prosecuting old people is cruel. This is why, of course, we will never witness Russia prosecuting veterans of the wars in Afghanistan or World War II, despite a wealth of evidence that Russian soldiers committed atrocious crimes during both conflicts. The instance of rape and murder of German women are countless. Russia's warped sense of justice doesn't extend to old people. In Russia, the statute of limitations for the most heinous of crimes, including genocide, is marginal. All benefit of the doubt is given to the genocidal.
Should Meri stand trial? Definitely. A public trial would once again remind the world of the horrors of Stalinism and the Soviet Union, both of which are undergoing an unholy revival under Vladimir Putin, and shed new light 's through public testimony 's about what happened on Hiiumaa that day in 1949.
At the same time genocide is a strong word, and it will be difficult for the prosecution to prove that Meri knew the people he was deporting would perish or be killed in their subsequent journey to an exile in Siberia. Without proving intent, the state has little case.
Finally, it has to be said that if Meri has sufficient energy to give Russian journalists in-depth interviews, then he is fit to stand trial. If he can justify himself in front of the camera, then he can do so on the stand. Fair is fair. If Meri wants to talk the talk, then he can walk the walk.