TALLINN - Arnold Meri, who was on trial for genocide, has passed away, bringing the high-profile two-year long court case to a close.
Meri was charged with genocide in 2007 by the Estonian Western Circuit Prosecutor's Office for his role in the deportation of hundreds of people from the Estonian island of Hiiumaa in 1949. The case had been put on hold multiple times because of Meri's health problems.
According to his granddaughter, Anastasia Mjalson, Meri died at home at 8:00 p.m. on March 28 at the age of 89. Mjalson said Meri would be buried at a cemetery in Manniku in Tallinn, where other members of the family have been put to rest.
Meri had publicly acknowledged his role in the deportations, but had argued in court that he could not be held responsible for their deaths because he was just following orders as a civil servant. Forty-three of the 251 Estonian civilian deportees, mostly women and children, had died in Novosibirsk.
The Russian government took the opportunity of his death to hail Meri as a hero. Within hours of his death, Russian President Dmitri Medvedev awarded Meri posthumously with the Order of Honor 's a medal given out to civilians that worked toward improving conditions of life.
Meri had been awarded numerous medals by the Soviet Union, including the Order of Lenin and a Gold Star of the Hero of the Soviet Union, two of the most prestigious awards given out by the former bloc.
Meri also held high positions, such as Chief Adviser to the Ministry of Education, in the Soviet Union. At the time of his death, he was the chairman of the Estonian Anti-Fascist Committee.
Meanwhile, the Russian human rights organization Memorial said that the mass deportation of Estonians in 1949 could be qualified as a crime against humanity but not as an act of genocide, Interfax reported.
The lower house of Russia's parliament, the State Duma, in May 2008 sent an address to members of the European parliament demanding a halt to the "shameful trial."
"The trial is a purely political order to revise the results of WWII and to discredit the efforts of the anti-Hitler coalition to save mankind from the fascist plague," the statement read.
Meri joined the Red Army during the first Soviet occupation of Estonia in 1940. He was decorated for fighting against the Germans after the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was broken. He ended his WWII military career with the rank of colonel.
Meri also belonged to the central command structure for Estonia for the 39 so-called "Destruction Battalions," which were tasked with stamping out anti-Soviet resistance. Once of his duties was to hunt down and kill members of the Forest Brethren, an Estonian guerrilla independence group.
Arnold Meri was cousin to Lennart Meri, Estonia's first president and one of the most prominent and celebrated Baltic politicians in history. Ironically, Lennart Meri was honored by renaming Tallinn's airport after him the day after Arnold Meri's death.
Lennart Meri was deported to Siberia with his family in June 1941, but was later able to return to Estonia. He died in 2006.