Tallinn, March 30 – Memorial, one of Russia’s most widely respected human rights organizations, has concluded on the basis of a detailed examination of the evidence and of international law that the Soviet deportation of more than 20,000 people from Estonian 1949 was a crime against humanity, for which there is no statute of limitations.
Consequently, the organization says, efforts by Estonia or other countries to bring charges against “those suspected of involvement in such crimes” is “completely justified,” and Estonian charges against Arnold Meri, who died on Friday, of crimes against humanity are entirely lawful (www.polit.ru/dossie/2009/03/29/estonia.html).
That finding, which was confirmed by Memorial on March 12th but posted online only yesterday on the 60th anniversary of the largest post-war Soviet deportation in Estonia, is certain to please many in Estonia and the West but to outrage many in the Russian Federation who continue to view Arnold Meri as a Soviet hero.
But another part of Memorial’s legal analysis seems likely to have the opposite effect. The Moscow human rights group says that “attempts to interpret the deportation of 1949 as a genocide or a military crime are “legally unfounded,” even though some Estonians were killed in the process and even though Soviet forces targeted civilians.
And Memorial insists that “as to the question of the guilt or innocence of any particular accused and also the taking into account of various mitigating circumstances, then this is exclusively the prerogative of a court which should as fully and objectively as possible investigate all aspects of the case.”
The 1949 deportations remain a sensitive issue in Estonia. They were begun on March 25, 1949, when the Soviet government ordered the deportation of the families of Estonians suspected of participating in or supporting the underground resistance against the Soviet occupation.
The operation was carried out over three days, Memorial records, “in the course of which were deported, according to various sources, from 20,480 to 22,000 individuals,” that is from 7471 to 7540 families, an action that many Estonians and others have long viewed as an act of genocide as well as a crime of war and a crime against humanity.
In the course of the deportation approximately 100 to 110 people died, although some sources have suggested that the number was much higher. However that may be, Russian scholars say, the report records, that the deportation was designed to “liquidate the social basis of resistance to the policy of Sovietization throughout the territory of the Baltic region.”
“The main instrument of the deportation,” Memorial notes, was the Soviet intelligence and interior ministries, but it adds that “it is beyond question that the leading role in all decisions and in the conduct of the deportation belonged to the Communist Party,” thus opening the door to charges against its members and leaders for involvement in this action.
“It is obvious,” Memorial says, “that the deportation by itself was a crime to the extent that it took place without any legal basis and in violation of the existing constitution.” But more than 50 years have passed since it occurred, and charges can be brought only on the basis of three crimes for which there is no statute of limitations.
These crimes, of course, are genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. Memorial’s experts examined each of these as they might apply to the Estonian situation, and they concluded that the deportation does not fall under the category of genocide even though people died or under the category of war crimes even though the military was involved.
But the Memorial legal experts say, “the mass deportation of people chosen because of their membership in a social group can be a crime against humanity,” because it constitutes a form of “group persecution.” And they cite various UN documents and decision of the European Court on Human Rights in support of that position.
The Memorial report will not end the controversy, but its careful legal analysis will make it far more difficult for Russian commentators to insist that Arnold Meri and his comrades were not guilty of any violation of international law or that what Stalin and his regime did in Estonia was not a crime against humanity.