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Tuesday, November 26, 2002


Estonia brings Stalin's secret police to justice

SURVIVORS of deportations to Siberia in 1949 are to give evidence in court today. Julius Strauss reports from Kuressaare

JUTA Vessik sat hunched in her cold, bare front room and clutched tightly at a cheap photo album stuffed with fading, sepia-tinted photographs. Tears rolled down her wrinkled face.

Inside were portraits of friends and relatives taken away by the Soviet secret police more than 50 years ago. Many were killed -- among them her father, grandfather and several cousins.

She was arrested. "I remember it as if it was yesterday. My husband and I both got 25 years. When we were granted an amnesty in 1957 my son didn't recognise me. He hid under the bed when I came home."

Mrs Vessik was one of more than 20,000 Estonians, many of them from wealthy farming stock, deported by Stalin in 1949 in cattle wagons and on ferries.

About 400 of them were taken to Siberia from the Baltic island of Saameraa, a close-knit farming community where even now most speak only a few words of Russian.

Today, more than half a century after the event, survivors will gather in a courtroom and start giving evidence against the men responsible.

It will be the largest trial held anywhere in the former Soviet Union for crimes committed under Stalin.

Estonia has tried five Soviet agents for other offences since 1991. Only one, Karl-Leonhard Paulov, 77, was given a custodial sentence. He served one year of an eight-year term before dying in prison.

Given the scale of the killings and deportations, campaigners say the Saameraa trial could pave the way for many more. The Baltic states have vowed to bring those responsible to justice.

At least 20 million died under Stalin's rule and a further 40 million were deported, but Russia and the other former Soviet republics have shown no enthusiasm for a historical reckoning. Among those accused will be Vladimir Kask. As a 23-year-old agent, Mrs Vessik says, he interrogated her and signed the deportation order that wrecked her life.

The other seven accused are Pyotr Kislyi, 81, Viktor Martson, 81, Heino Laus, 75, Stephan Nikeyev, 78, Rudolf Sasask, 76, August Kol, 77, and Albert Kolga, 78. When legal proceedings began last week Kask, Sasask and Laus were not in court, saying they were too ill to attend.

Preparing the case has taken investigators three years. Much of the supporting documentation was found in a vast, underground store-room in the Estonian capital, Tallinn, when the KGB fled.

For relations between Estonia and Russia, the trial could hardly come at a worse time. They are already at loggerheads over Tallinn's treatment of the 400,000 ethnic Russians in Estonia, who have been marginalised since the Soviet Union collapsed. Last week Estonia and neighbouring Latvia and Lithuania were invited to join Nato.

The Kremlin has accused Tallinn of seeking revenge and sent lawyers and funds to aid the ailing former agents. Two of the defendants are Russian citizens.

The accused and their lawyers say the trial should be scrapped. Kolga told a local newspaper: "Life was different then. I didn't break any laws." It is an argument that has won some sympathy in Kuressaare, where the trial is being held.

Tonu Sannik, a 40-year-old fish salesman born on the island, said: "Those men were part of an army and just doing what they were told."

Estonian prosecutors argue that despite the defendants' ages the historical account must be set to rights. Henno Kuurmann, a spokesman for the investigators, said: "The trial is about justice, not revenge." Vilma Suult, a 70-year-old pensioner, agreed. She was 17 when she was taken away with her family. She grew agitated as she recalled her deportation 53 years ago.

She said: "My father was a rich farmer. We had a tractor and several cows. The Russians gave the local KGB a quota they had to fulfil and they chose us.

"We had no blankets and had to use a box in the corner as a lavatory. When the train stopped in Tallinn people tried to throw us food through the bars.

"One women ripped off her skirt and threw that in so we could have a little warmth. We were treated like animals, not humans.

"This is not about punishment, but the people who did this must be labelled as guilty. They have shown no remorse and that makes me very angry. The Germans committed crimes and they have paid for them. But with the Russians, it's as if we can't even raise the subject."



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