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Page last updated at 15:58 GMT, Tuesday, 20 May 2008 16:58 UK

Estonia tries Soviet war figure

Arnold Meri arrives in the town of Kardla, Hiiumaa Island, for his trial on 20 May
Arnold Meri is being tried on the island where his alleged crime took place

An elderly Soviet war hero, Arnold Meri, has gone on trial in his native Estonia on a charge of genocide over deportations to Siberia in 1949.

Mr Meri, 88, denies helping to organise the deportation of 251 civilians to Soviet labour camps but admits to playing a minor role.

Estonia's argument that genocide took place is not widely accepted.

The defendant is the last surviving Estonian to be made a Hero of the Soviet Union in World War II.

He is a cousin of Estonia's first post-independence president, the late Lennart Meri.

His defence is seeking to halt the trial on health grounds.

Health checks

The defendant, who lives in the suburbs of Tallinn, is being tried on the island of Hiiumaa, off Estonia's west coast, where he is accused of helping to organise the civilians' deportation.

Every Estonian had only one decision to make: whose side to take in that bloody fight - the Nazis' or the anti-Hitler coalition's
Arnold Meri
interviewed by the BBC in 2007 about his war years

Estonia's security police say more than 40 of those deported either died on the way to, or in, the Siberian camps.

Mr Meri has admitted being involved in deportations from Hiiumaa but denies organising them.

"I do not consider myself guilty of genocide," he said in court on Tuesday.

With the defendant suffering from poor eyesight and hearing, his lawyer requested health checks to determine whether he is fit for trial.

Mr Meri was awarded the Gold Star - the USSR's highest military decoration - for his combat service in the Red Army against German forces in the months after the Nazi invasion in 1941.

Wounded in the war, he served as an official in Estonia after the country was re-annexed by the Soviets, who drove out Nazi forces.

Since winning independence from the USSR in 1991, Estonia has been gradually attempting to prosecute those who helped in the deportation of more than 20,000 Estonians to Siberian camps after World War II.

Allegations that the Soviet authorities committed genocide against Estonians are fiercely contested in Russia, where the Meri trial is attracting media attention.

Estonia has been accused, in turn, of failing to prosecute adequately suspected war criminals who sided with the Nazis.


SEE ALSO
Estonian man on genocide charge
23 Aug 07 |  Europe
When giants fought in Estonia
09 May 07 |  Europe
Country profile: Estonia
23 Jan 08 |  Country profiles
Timeline: Estonia
23 Jan 08 |  Country profiles


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