Aug 22, 2007
TALLINN, Estonia (Reuters) -- An 88-year-old Estonian man has been charged with genocide for helping deport hundreds of his countrymen to Soviet camps in 1949, the Estonian prosecutor's office said on Wednesday.
Arnold Meri, a highly decorated Soviet soldier and cousin of the former Estonian president, was allegedly involved in the deportation of 251 Estonian citizens from Hiiumaa Island, off the Baltic state's west coast.
According to Estonia's security police, 43 of them died in Siberian labor and concentration camps and one died en route.
Estonia has been gradually attempting to prosecute those who helped in the deportations of more than 20,000 Estonians, many of them women and children, to Siberia during and after World War Two.
The deportees were forbidden to return to Soviet-ruled Estonia, which regained its independence in 1991, until after the death of Josef Stalin in 1953. More than 3,000 died in exile.
The 1949 wave of deportations Meri was alleged to have assisted came during a Soviet drive to collectivize Estonian agriculture. Many of the victims were well-off landowners whose farms were seized.
"Arnold Meri is alleged to have organized the deportations of Estonian citizens from Hiiumaa Island," State Prosecutor's office spokeswoman Julia Zhmarjova said.
Zhmarjova said the case had been sent to the courts and it was impossible to say how long it would be before judges could indict Meri or to estimate the length of the process.
In an interview with the Estonian daily Paevaleht, Meri said he did not expect to see the end of the court process as he was nearly blind and deaf and his blood pressure was 200.
The punishment for those convicted of genocide under Estonian law is from 10 years to life imprisonment.