Central Europe Review: politics,
society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 1, No 15
4 October 1999

The Amber Coast T H E   A M B E R   C O A S T:
It's Never Too Late
Hunting aged war criminals in the Baltics
Mel Huang

The BBC News web site recently posed an interesting question to the public, obviously linked to the break of the Melita Norwood spying case: "Can a Spy be Too Old to Prosecute?" I responded to the poll with a definitive no and was glad to see many opinions were on my side. When has age become a factor against or concerning crime? A crime is a crime, and advanced age should not play a role in determining guilt. Punishment, perhaps, but not guilt. Guilt is guilt, and for a justice system to avoid prosecution due to advanced age is for Lady Justice to lift her blindfold for a peek.

In a region as cruelly raped by history as the Baltic countries of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, any re-examinations of historical incidents no doubt raise the same question. How old is too old to be tried (less punished) for crimes committed in the past? What if somehow a nonagenarian high-ranking Nazi is found by Mossad agents - would age be a concern in excercising justice? For every nation that has faced an attempted genocide, that justice is equivalent to a campaign against such horrors. Within recent weeks, two high-profile cases - one in Lithuania and the other in Latvia - have kept the age debate running.

The first involves Aleksandras Lileikis - suspected of committing atrocities against Jews during the period of Nazi occupation in Lithuania. Despite the all-out efforts of Israel, the Simon Wiesenthal Centre and the US Justice Department, a Vilnius court halted the trial due to Lileikis's age and condition. The 92-year-old Lileikis will likely be allowed to die a free man - without even the scrutiny of a court case. Some people in Lithuania use the argument of age as well as international pressure to further their reasoning on why Lileikis and other older Nazis should not be tried. But, to deny justice for any reason cripples a state's ability to provide safety for its citizens.

Mikhail Farbtukh
Mikhail Farbtukh
(photo courtesy of Neatkariga Rita Avize)
The second case involves Mikhail Farbtukh in Latvia - convicted of genocide in the deportation of 31 families during the first Soviet occupation of 1940 to 1941. Farbtukh was convicted in Riga on 27 September and sentenced to seven years in jail. The 83-year-old Farbtukh, though maintaining his innocence, claimed the jail sentence was a fate "worse than death." When the age issue was brought up, the sentencing judge replied that many of the deportees were in fact "old and in poor health" as well. This is well documented, as a large majority of the deported were women, children and the elderly; many of the men were simply shot by the Soviets.

The issue of age in criminal proceedings has come up several times in the Baltics but with different results. Several other suspected war criminals, such as Kazys Gimzauskas (Lithuanian, accused of atrocities against Jews) and Vassili Riis (Estonian, accused of arranging deportations while under Soviet occupation) have also had their criminal proceedings halted due to age and condition. But, in the case of Alfons Noviks, Latvia has provided one example of how age does not change guilt. Noviks, the former head of the KGB in Latvia, was found guilty of genocide and sent to jail back in 1995 for masterminding the deportations of thousands of Latvians between 1941 and 1949. Noviks died in prison at the age of 89. Estonia itself has also convicted several masterminds of deportation in the past few years, including Mikhail Neverovski, who was sentenced to four years in prison this August.

To return to the rash of spy "outings" in Britain - it is tragic that advanced age has overtaken the concept of justice. The fact that the individuals involved, such as Melita Norwood, freely admitted their guilt demonstrates the unfairness of the justice system in that country. First of all, in some of the cases, the violation of the Official Secrets Act should have resulted in a quick "disappearance" carried out by Her Majesty's Service. Moreover, the fact remains that many of the secrets supplied by Norwood and colleagues were of the highest national security - and the act of passing them over to enemy agents is tantamount to high treason; some of the secrets handed over were evidently directly responsible for the Cold War nuclear arms build-up. The Rosenbergs were executed, after all.

We are all taught from youth to respect the elderly. Rightly so, and that should be a mantra in our lives. However, we were also taught to look up to our elders, for their experience can help us in our own life's journey. How can we look up to our elders if they evade responsibility for something they freely admit to?

Mel Huang, 4 October 1999




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