23rd Oct 2016

Austria and Lithuania lock horns over ex-KGB general

  • The names of KGB victims in Lithuania (Photo: wouterh)

Austria's release of a former KGB general allegedly responsible for the deaths of 14 people during Lithuania's independence protests in 1991 has outraged the Baltic state, which says the decision could affect future EU-level judicial cooperation.

"Imagine if Ratko Mladic [the Bosnian Serb general on trial for war crimes] was not extradited to the International Criminal Court in the Hague, due to a decision by a member state. Could that even be possible?" Lithuanian foreign minister Audronius Azubalis told this website on Monday (18 July) on the margins of a foreign affairs council in Brussels.

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On Friday, the Austrian authorities released ex-KGB general Mikhail Golovatov less than 24 hours after he was arrested on a European arrest warrant issued by Lithuanian prosecutors. Golovatov was a former commander of the KBG's Alpha Group. Lithuanian prosecutors accuse him of organising his unit's storming of the state television studios on 13 January 1991, in which 14 people died.

The minister said he talked with his Austrian colleague, saying it's "a little bit unfair" of him to claim that the Lithuanian authorities did not provide sufficient information to arrest ex-KGB general Mikhail Golovatov.

"I had called the minister on Friday and asked him to take the matter very seriously. He promised Austrian prosecutors would wait for more information. But Golovatov was released in less than 24 hours. This is a tough violation of EU and Austrian law, because the suspect was released in less than 48 hours which are allowed," Azubalis said.

When asked if Vilnius is considering taking Vienna to court, the minister said "we are discussing all possible actions".

For now, Lithuania has recalled its ambassador to Vienna "for consultations" and is also raising the issue at an informal meeting of justice ministers in Poland on Tuesday.

But the minister warned that this "lack of European solidarity" may also have an impact on future judicial co-operation at EU level.

'No mistake

For his part, Austrian minister Michael Spindelegger said during a press conference on Monday that "there was no reason to believe there was any mistake" made by Austrian authorities.

"There were two deadlines which passed with no concrete details incriminating the person, that is why he was not arrested," the minister explained.

He said he had spoken to his Lithuanian colleague and understood the "old wound" the case evokes in the Baltic country.

"But we need to stick to the procedures. Justice is independent and politics are and should not be above it," he argued.

Spindelegger also rejected any rumours of meddling by Moscow and said that "no Russian minister or politician has contacted me about it", as Golovatov's alleged return to Russia has been reported in some media.

News agency AFP quoted an unnamed diplomat saying that there are "suspicions" Russia put pressure on Austria.

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