Central Europe Review: politics,
society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 0, No 21
15 February 1999

The Amber Coast T H E   A M B E R   C O A S T:
"International Justice" and
Lithuania's Dilemma

Mel Huang

With all the recent upheaval about increasing cross-border justice, Lithuania has found itself stuck in a precarious position. The country cannot get its hands on the criminals it wants, and it cannot decide if it can pass judgement on nonagenarians. There is little in the way of support from the international community; rather, words of condemnation, anger, accusation and disappointment from abroad flood the Lithuanian press. Is this fair treatment to a country which has suffered so much over the years?

On the occasion of the 81st independence day of Lietuvos Respublika (the Republic of Lithuania), the country is still haunted by the events of over half a century ago and is still trying to find some way of healing those wounds. Sadly, the progression of "international justice" is not helping the situation with little Lithuania backed into a corner.

Ever since the collapse of the Soviet bloc, cases have sprung up all over the world against former Nazi officials and their accomplices from central and east Europe. The United States has stripped several people of their US citizenship, as in all US citizenship applications one must stipulate any connection with the Nazis. There were several high-profile extradition cases around the world; currently the biggest such case is the extradition from Argentina of Dinko and Nada Sakic to Croatia for atrocities committed under the Ustase-led Croatia of Ante Pavelic (Nada was cleared of the charges several days ago). And for most of the world not familiar with "international justice" since the Nuremberg Trials, the Augusto Pinochet saga opened the floodgates for such calls of extradition and cross-border justice. These days everyone is asking for such extradition: Libya wants former Reagan-administration officials, Milosevic-led Yugoslavia wants to try former Ustase members, and so on.

For Lithuania (and Poland), the situation is even more confusing. During the period surrounding World War II, atrocities against all sides were committed. The Lithuanians were slaughtered and deported in their tens of thousands by the Soviets. The Jewish population was nearly wiped out by the Nazis and local accomplices. The Lithuanians and Poles were at each other's throats all the time over territorial questions. Atrocities were committed against the Germans by locals, including Lithuanians, Poles and Jews. All in all, it was war at its worst, when the animal side of humankind surfaces and commits acts that are less than human. But for Lithuania, it appeared that everyone went after everyone at some point. How to resolve such chaos, especially half a century later?

The highest-profile cases in Lithuania have to be that of Aleksandras Lileikis and Kazys Gimzauskas, two former US citizens stripped of their US citizenship and facing trial in Lithuania for Nazi-era atrocities. Though both men claim their innocence, the trial process was halted due to medical reasons. A court-appointed medical board declared the two men unfit for the rigours of a trial. This was met by calls of being soft on Nazis by groups such as the Simon Wiesenthal Centre, and even the US Justice Department criticised Lithuania, saying the two men were "lying" about their health. Unfortunately, some small, nationalist groups are rallying around the two men (many for, sadly, racist reasons but others for the cause of Lithuanian sovereignty) calling for an end to meddling from the international community. It appears now that an "international" medical board may make the final recommendations to whether the two can face trial.

At the same time, Lithuania is also pursuing its other tormentors - the Soviets. There has been little publicity, or help, for Lithuania's attempts to try those for the atrocities of the 1940s (mass murders and deportations) and early 1990s (the Soviet-led massacres in Vilnius and Medininkai). Several wanted figures are hiding out and calls for extradition have been rebuffed. Understandably the noise about bringing Mikhail Gorbachev to trial in Vilnius was met with plenty of scepticism, but the requests for the less-famous but more-infamous have been blocked simply by those states still protecting those old interests.

Of course, the international community has done little to support this. Little wonder, when history books rarely mention the dimension of Stalin's genocides. The Holocaust certainly deserves its strong mention in history texts; but on the other hand, Stalin was responsible for the deaths of several times more people than Hitler, ranging from the Ukrainian Famine to Katyn, not to mention the tens of thousands of Balts. As history books in the West still talk about "Uncle Joe" and his alliance with the West against Hitler, many have side-stepped those atrocities, and there is little support for bringing to justice others who committed atrocities.

Does one community have the patent out on "international justice" over all others? Two good examples of cases which neighbouring Poland is involved in shed light on this topic. No doubt I will be severely criticised for this point-of-view, but it is plain for all to see. Poland is attempting to have Helena Wolinska Brus extradited from England to Poland to face trial for her role as a military prosecutor (the charge concerns the execution of anti-Communist resistance hero General August Emil Fieldorf). Though Whitehall has indicated it would not put up resistance, Adam LeBor, a correspondent with The Independent, questioned the extradition of a person of Jewish origin to the country of Treblinka and Auschwitz. He seems to have forgotten that the camps were built by the Nazis, that Poland was not in existence at the time and that one of her biggest accusers is Wladyslaw Bartoszewski, the head of the Polish Senate's Foreign Relations Committee, former anti-Communist freedom fighter, former prisoner under Mrs Brus's signature and an honorary citizen of Israel for his rescues of Jews during the War years. At the same time, the English courts are trying in glee to convict Anthony Sawoniuk for crimes against humanity for his role in the Holocaust in Belarus. If Mrs Brus is not extradited to Poland, would this constitute a double standard for English justice?

The other high-profile case relating to Poland is the request to extradite Solomon Morel from Israel for allegations of torture and murder against thousands of Germans. Israel has rejected the call, saying the statutes of limitations had run out on this case. The request came from the Polish Ministry of Justice concerning Morel's activities at the Swietochlowice camp for German prisoners near the end of the War, but this Israeli decision effectively ends the case. It is disappointing to see Israel, which understands wartime atrocities better than any other country, using such a reason to deny justice.

Many hint that the pursuit by Poland of the two extradition attempts can be construed as anti-Semitism. Lithuania has also faced similar accusation, that the foot-dragging of the trials is symptomatic of the alleged hatred. True, there were a significant number of Lithuanians who participated with the Nazis in carrying out the Holocaust for which former Lithuanian President Algirdas Brazauskas apologised during a state visit to Israel; also, there were a significant number of Lithuanians who fought to save its Jewish community. Lithuania had been a haven for Jews for centuries, as Vilnius developed into the biggest centre of Jewish life in the region. Litvaks (Lithuanian Jews) have helped shape the world, ranging from Mehachem Begin (former Israeli Prime Minister) to European Commissioner Sir Leon Brittain. The Holocaust, people forget, was a devastating blow for Lithuania itself. Its Jewish community constituted a significant and intricate part of Lithuania, and losing them to the Holocaust destroyed a part of the Lithuanian spirit. It is perfectly in Lithuania's current interest to carry out justice against the perpetrators of the Holocaust. But at the end, it is Lithuania that needs to make the decisions to come to terms with its past, not the Simon Wiesenthal Centre nor the US Justice Department.

All in all, Lithuania is in a major dilemma on what to do to heal its historical wounds. The perpetrators of the Holocaust are rightly being brought to justice. But should there not be parity? After all, a human life is as valuable as any other, whether the person is Jewish, Somalian, Armenian, Timorese or Lithuanian. "International justice" should reflect that equality. The Polish examples show the difficulty of dealing with the crimes of the past, when the tide of "international justice" is not totally on your side. Lithuania is not doing much better in that respect.

So, on this celebration of Lithuania's 81st birthday, it will be yet another happy-sad occasion. Happy, that the country has survived despite all the strife and occupations along the way; sad, that the legacy of the strife and occupations remain a hindrance to the nation moving on. Will time heal all wounds? Sadly, in this case, it will help - as the criminals, on all sides, die sooner or later. Viso gero, Lietuva, iki tavo 181-os gimeno dienos...

Mel Huang, 15 February 1999


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