Latvia defeated in human rights case

  • 2008-07-30
  • By Talis Saule Archdeacon

RIGA - An alleged Soviet war criminal from World War II has won a landmark case against Latvia in the European Court of Human Rights and is to be compensated for his detention in the country.
World War II veteran Vasily Kononov, 85, was convicted of war crimes in a Latvian court and later acquitted by the ECHR, primarily because two of the three laws he broke were not yet in effect in 1944. The court has awarded him 30,000 euros in compensation for the years he spent in prison.
Kononov admitted to killing eight villagers in the Latvian town of Mazie Bati during a raid in 1944. Some were shot and some, including a woman in the later stages of a pregnancy, were burned alive. He claimed, contrary to allegations from Latvian prosecutors, that the victims were known Nazi collaborators.

"Only the Hague Convention … was in force at the time the alleged offenses were committed. Neither the USSR nor Latvia had signed that Convention, which was not, therefore, formally applicable to the armed conflict in question," the ECHR said in their ruling.
Kononov, while reportedly happy with the winning verdict, had initially asked for more than 5 million euros and expressed his outrage at the relatively low sum he was awarded.
"The sum to be compensated in moral damages is a mockery. Latvia was able, through its representative and the judge from Latvia, to move to its side the judges from Sweden and Iceland," he told a press conference in Moscow on July 28.

Kononov's other demands, which included moral damages and compensation for the apartment and plot of land he had been forced to sell in order to pay for court expenses and medical treatment, were also rejected.
The court narrowly passed his case by a vote of four to three, fully announcing the results on July 24. In an unusual move for the court, the three judges who voted against the case 's hailing from Latvia, Sweden and Iceland 's lodged a strongly worded dissent.
The dissenting judges claimed that their colleagues had set a dangerous precedent of only convicting German soldiers of war crimes in World War II.

Moreover, the judges said, the fact that the deadline had passed for Latvia to press charges 's another major element of the ruling 's was irrelevant because the country could not have viably applied the case while under Soviet rule.
Kononov was initially convicted of war crimes in 2000 by the Riga Regional Court. The charges were changed to "banditry" by another regional Latvian court in 2003, and then back to "war crimes" in 2004 by the Supreme Court. The ECHR overturned his acquittal on all charges in a 2007 ruling.
"This is my final victory, one I have been seeking for eight long years," he said following the 2007 ruling.

International reaction

The ruling has drawn praise from the Kremlin and sharp criticism from the Latvian government. Russia has followed the case closely and became a third party in the proceedings when then President Vladimir Putin granted Kononov citizenship in 2004.
"We are glad that justice has triumphed, and that the 85-year-old war veteran, having endured the hardship of imprisonment … has at last received an objective verdict from the European Court of Human Rights," a press release from the Russian Foreign Ministry said.

Many Russian politicians were less diplomatic in their praise of the ruling, attacking the Latvian state and claiming that the case represents a long-awaited victory of Soviets over Nazis.
"The case involving Kononov is one of many examples of re-Nazification in the Baltic states, where the courts and governments are repressing Soviet heroes and excusing Hitler's henchmen. That causes dishonor for Latvia," said Sergey Mironov, speaker of the upper house of the Russian parliament.
Russian Ambassador to Latvia Alexander Veshnyakov also weighed in on the issue, hailing the ruling as recognition of the Soviets' role as liberators rather than occupiers.

"You had to carry out a mission to free Europe from the plague of fascism. You are carrying a winner's flag proudly, bravely defending your rights on this cruel war and the role of Soviet soldiers as liberators," he said.
Latvian Foreign Minister Maris Riekstins, meanwhile, blasted the ruling and criticized the court, citing previous cases and the objections given by the dissenting judges.
"It is not the competence of the ECHR to reevaluate the evidence. In deciding that there was a violation, the judges have ignored international human-rights traditions that have been in place since 1944, as well as the contemporary approach to criminal and public law in evaluating the responsibility of an individual for international crimes," the minister said in a press release.

"Latvia must appeal to the Grand Chamber of the court in the case of Kononov versus Latvia," he said.