Largest deportation trial ever begins

  • 2002-11-28
  • Aleksei Gunter

Eight men suspected of preparing a mass deportation from the island of Saaremaa in 1949 went on trial in the town of Kuressaare on Nov. 19.

Investigated by the national security police and based on KGB files found in Tallinn in the mid-90s, the case is unique to the Baltics in terms of the number of suspects, victims and witnesses.

The court will likely continue hearing the case for one week after considering an appeal filed by the defendents' lawyers.

The prosecution says the trial is to demonstrate once again there is no statute of limitations on crimes against humanity and that all are equal under the law.

"Punishment for crimes against humanity does not depend upon when these crimes were committed," said Sirje Hunt, the state prosecutor from Parnu who is representing the state.

Some 300 people gathered at the first court session Nov. 19. Kuressaare town authorities foresaw the heightened interest and rented a large conference hall for the hearings.

Accused of sending about 400 Saaremaa residents to Siberia, if convicted the suspects will face from eight years to life in prison.

Seven of the eight suspects - Stepan Nikejev, Rudolf Sisask, August Kolt, Pjotr Kisly, Heino Laus, Viktor Martson and Vladimir Kask - held various posts in the Soviet security service division on the island of Saaremaa in 1949. Albert Kolga was an interpreter with the division.

In a similar case concluded earlier this November in Tallinn, the court found a former Soviet security officer guilty but ruled not to administer the sentence for health reasons.

According to the Kuressaare court, the trial might drag on for more than the allotted two weeks since all the defendents, who are aged from 75 to 81, are feeble.

Three defendents - Kask, Laus and Sisask - received permission not to attend the general court hearings for health reasons one day after the trial began.

A doctor from the local hospital is in attendence to provide medical assistance, and a police officer is present to quell any potential outburst from the viewers' hall.

At one point a number of elderly viewers nearly stormed the defendents' bench in a display of anger.

Supposedly the viewers were upset by a speech of Aleksandr Kustov, one of the counsels for the defense, who claimed the case has no merit since the criminal code that was in force at the time of the alleged crimes said nothing about crimes against humanity.

None of the suspects pled guilty Nov. 22 after the court finally worded the charges.

According to Hunt, the court needs more time to examine the appeal Kustov filed.

The court called 420 persons from all over the country to witness, but over 250 will reportedly not come. Some are dead, some are too old to travel, and the rest said they did not have money to come to Kuressaare.

Russia's reaction to the Saaremaa case echoed that of similar trials that have taken place in Estonia. The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated in a tough-worded press release Nov. 21 that the Estonian court does not use the norms of international law, but instead uses discretion and bias.

"Security service veterans [Kisly and Nikejev] are accused of genocide for participation in the special operation Surf that was one of the measures adopted against fascist accomplices and the 'forest brothers' terrorist band groups responsible for over 15,000 dead civilians," said the Russian ministry.

The ministry also stated that such "show trials" are taking place against the background of the country's EU accession, while the crimes of the Estonian SS division allegedly responsible for mass executions of Jews are being deliberately hushed up.