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20th Aug 2022

Justice commissioner backs Austria in KGB row with Lithuania

  • Reding says Austria had a legal basis to reject the European arrest warrant (Photo: ec.europa.eu)

Austria had no legal obligation to deliver ex-KGB general Mikhail Golovatov to Lithuania, since the crimes he is accused of occurred eleven years before before the European arrest warrant entered into force, EU justice commissioner Viviane Reding has said.

The release of Golovatov last Friday, less than 24 hours after his arrest, sparked an intense diplomatic row between Lithuania and Austria, with Vilnius accusing Vienna of violating EU and national law and lack of solidarity with another member state.

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Lithuanian prosecutors had issued the European arrest warrant in order to put Golovatov on trial for allegedly having ordered, as a former KGB general, the storming of the Lithuanian state television in 1991. The events left 14 people dead and hundreds injured as the Baltic state was declaring its independence. Golovatov is now in Russia, a country which does not extradite its citizens to the EU.

"From a legal point of view, Austria didn't have the obligation to implement the European arrest warrant," Reding told a press conference in Sopot, Poland, after an informal meeting of justice ministers where the Lithuanian-Austrian row came up.

The commissioner explained that under EU law, a country receiving an EU arrest warrant from another member state is obliged to follow it only if the crimes were committed after 2002.

But she admitted that "one is the legal question, another one the political question."

"It's a duty of every member state to cooperate with their partners. Austria and Lithuania decided to have a bilateral working group and leave no doubt that co-operation will be smooth in the future," she said.

Earlier that day, the foreign ministers of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia jointly wrote to Reding complaining about Austria's actions.

"We emphasize that the European arrest warrant as an instrument of mutual trust within the EU should be effectively applied in practice in order to arrest and surrender persons, especially those involved in the war crimes and crimes against humanity," the ministers wrote.

On Monday, Lithuanian foreign minister Audronius Azubalis told this website that the release of Golovatov equated to Bosnian Serb general Ratko Mladic not being delivered to the International Crimininal Court. "Could that even be possible?" he asked.

Centre-right MEP Vytautas Landsbergis, a leader of Lithuania's independence movement, said Austria had shown "subservience to Russia and a lack of a sense of honour."

But Austrian foreign minister Michael Spindelegger retorted that "no Russian politician or diplomat has contacted me about this case."

Speaking to reporters on Monday, Spindelegger said he understood the "old wound" of Lithuania, but "politics cannot be above the judiciary in a state based on the rule of law." He cited a lack of incriminating evidence and said Austrian prosecutors had "no choice" but to release Golovatov.

Spindelegger's deputy, Johannes Kyrle, also noted that the suspect had been able to travel to Scandinavia and southern Europe numerous times in past months, despite the warrant.

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