Tuesday

21st Sep 2021

Lithuania suspects Russian meddling in Austrian KGB row

  • Moscow is believed to have pressured Austria in releasing the KGB man (Photo: Wikipedia)

Austria's release of former Russian KGB officer Mikhail Golovatov is "very strange" and indicates Russian meddling as well as highlighting the limits of EU solidarity, Lithuanian justice minister Remigijus Simasius told this website.

"From indirect evidence, it looks like it could be Russian influence. Of course, Austria denies it, but everything around this case looks very strange. All the explanations from the Russian side, the information streaming from different sources, the indications that this case was treated differently," Simasius said one week after Austrian authorities released the former Russian spy wanted in Lithuania for war crimes.

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The now 62-year old Golovatov was head of KGB's Alpha special forces which in 1991 stormed the national television building in Vilnius, killing 14 and injuring hundreds just as the Baltic state was declaring independence from the Soviet Union.

In 2010, Lithuanian prosecutors issued a European Arrest Warrant in Golovatov's name, leading to his arrest on 14 July as he flew in from Russia. Less than 24 hours later, he was released and put on a flight back to Russia, despite calls from the Lithuanians to extradite him.

According to Golovatov's account in an interview with Ria Novosti, the Russian ambassador in Vienna spent the whole night at the airport negotiating his release. Austrian officials cited lack of incriminating evidence and said the Lithuanian side failed to deliver the proper clarifications by the deadlines set in Vienna.

The Lithuanian minister says no error was made on the part of his subordinates.

"It's abusive when Austrian officials allow themselves to say that this was historical information, but not actual information on the crime he is suspected of. It's a proof of double standards, because in any other case, this would have been more than enough to extradite him," he said.

"We consider that Austria has made a mistake and we want them to acknowledge that," the minister stressed, noting that Golovatov is not the only one prosecuted for those crimes and others were tried and have already served their sentence in Lithuania.

Simasius agreed with EU justice commissioner Viviane Reding who last week said that Austria had the legal basis not to execute the European Arrest Warrant because the alleged crimes were committed before 2002 when this tool came into force.

"But it's also clear from a legal perspective that Austria treats all arrest warrants for crimes before 2002 as requests for extradition. And of course the person we're speaking about was released under procedures of extradition. In this respect we think that Austria breached the rules of extradition," the minister said.

In reply, Austrian Prime Minister Werner Faymann on Friday rejected any blame and said that "in Austria an independent authority has decided independently".

But as Die Presse daily points out, the respective prosecutors had to follow the advice of the justice ministry, which is a political body.

And according to the Austrian Green MP Peter Pilz, the Russian ambassador threatened local authorities with "political and economic sanctions" if the former KGB officer is not released.

The Czech Republic last week also joined Lithuania in criticising Vienna over the handling of this case. It was the "moral obligation" of each EU country to bring to justice those involved in or responsible for deaths during the Soviet dictatorship, the foreign ministry said in a statement.

By the same token, Finland revoked a Schengen visa it had issued for Golovatov in 2009, before the EU arrest warrant was issued by Lithuania.

Golovatov himself denies responsibility for any crimes and claims he was "following orders" by the commander-in-chief Mikhail Gorbachev. "I am a soldier and I acted within the borders of the Soviet Union," he told Ria Novosti.

"A special flight took us to Lithuania to support the telecommunications infrastructure at the Vilnius television centre and to ensure access for Russian-speaking journalists. That's it. This question has never been raised since 1991."

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