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Last Updated: Wednesday, 13 August, 2003, 09:28 GMT 10:28 UK
Does the UK owe Stalin's victims?

By Jon Silverman
Home affairs analyst

During World War II, the UK snatched property in this country belonging to firms and citizens of its foreign enemies. However, some of these assets belonged to people - mainly Jews - who were persecuted by the Nazis. Compensating survivors and the families of the dead has been complicated in some cases by the Soviet Union's murky deeds in the war's early years.

Inmates of a Nazi concentration camp
Hitler's victims can be repaid, but what about Stalin's?
Sixty-two years ago this month, the Baltic republic of Estonia officially became an enemy of the United Kingdom when it was occupied by Nazi Germany.

That may be thought a historical footnote at most. But over the last two decades, some of the lessons of history have been learned not in universities, nor even on television, but in courts of law. And one of the consequences of Estonia's status during World War II will be the basis of a unique case before the English High Court later this year.

On one side of the argument is Jakob Kaplan, who lives in Israel. On the other, is the Department of Trade and Industry and the body which it set up in 1999 to adjudicate on Holocaust-era compensation claims, the Enemy Property Claims Assessment Panel.

Estonia's foreign masters
Stalin's regime could be as brutal as that of Hitler
Russia first took control of Estonia in the 1700s, when Peter the Great defeated the former colonial power, Sweden.
Estonians attempted, unsuccessfully, to gain independence during the chaos of the Russian Revolution in 1917.
German forces - who had been fighting Russia's Tsar for four years - invaded the state in early 1918 and took formal control as part of a peace treaty with Russia's new Soviet rulers.
After Germany's surrender to the Allies, Estonia declared independence. This was opposed with troops by the Soviets.
As part of a 1939 pact between Hitler and Stalin (above), Soviet forces first demanded bases inside Estonia and later invaded.
In the first month of the Soviet occupation, 60,000 Estonians were killed or deported.
In 1941, Hitler invaded Estonia - with the help of Estonian fighters. The Red Army returned in 1944 and remained until the early 1990s.

The government established the panel as a belated acknowledgement that the policies of previous administrations towards claimants, mainly Jews, had been shamefully harsh.

In order to recover assets which had been seized by Britain when the countries in which they were living officially became enemy states, they had to jump through several constricting hoops after the war.

Two conditions were almost impossible to satisfy. They had to have left "enemy territory" - improbable if the country was behind the Iron Curtain. And heirs had to produce hard evidence of a relative's death. Since the administrators of the Nazi death camps did not issue death certificates, this, too, ensured that many claims failed.

Jakob Kaplan is seeking compensation for assets belonging to his father, Moses, his uncle, Boris, and their family company in Estonia.

By the time Estonia was declared an enemy state in the summer of 1941, Moses and Boris had been deported from their homes to brutal prison camps in Siberia. By whom? By the Soviet authorities which administered Estonia from 1939 as a consequence of a non-aggression pact with Hitler. And herein lies the problem. If the deportation order was signed by a Soviet rather than a Nazi authority, does Jakob Kaplan have a case for compensation?

No, says Sir Christopher Staughton, the appeal adjudicator for the claims panel. He doesn't deny that Soviet treatment of Jews and others frequently led to their deaths - indeed, Boris died in Siberia. But, he says, the crucial point is this: "It may have been similar to Nazi persecution, but it was not, itself, Nazi persecution."

Compensation for Baltic States
Payments to citizens of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania were complicated by these states having no "independent government" after the war.
Successive UK governments in the 1950s and 1960s decided that "annexation by the Soviet Union was recognised de facto [existing], though not de jure [rightful]".
Baltic assets were therefore negotiated as part of a settlement of all Anglo-Soviet financial claims arising from the war.
Source: Foreign & Commonwealth Office report
And why is that crucial? Because the claims scheme was set up solely to address the issue of assets seized from victims of Nazi persecution. And though Stalin probably killed more people than Hitler, Soviet crimes are not covered by the legislation.

At a High Court hearing on 31 July 2003, lawyers for Jakob Kaplan argued that Sir Christopher had erred in law. They said that the thousands of deportations carried out in Estonia between 1939-41 were being applied in pursuance of Nazi policies and therefore were covered by the claims scheme.

Mr Justice Jackson agreed that they had an arguable case and granted their application for a full judicial review of the adjudicator's decision. It will be the first such challenge and will throw open to public scrutiny, the process which has been applied to 1,105 compensation claims since 1999.

To its credit, the panel has approved nearly one in three of them and paid out more than 12 million so far. Another seventy claims are still to be settled.

It may be only a footnote to the history of World War II, but to those left with a gaping chasm in their own families by the Holocaust, it has a significance which should not be under-estimated.

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