A Question Of Justice

On a warm night in June 1943, when Vasily Kononov was 20 years old, he jumped out of an American-made Douglas airplane into what was then Nazi-occupied territory in the Soviet Union. Kononov had been born and raised in a small village in eastern Latvia. War came and he ended up joining the Soviet guerrilla fighters known as the Partisans. After five months of demolition training, he returned to his birthplace and waged war against Hitler. After the war, his country--the Soviet Union--awarded him the Order of Lenin, and he went on to a career as an officer in the Soviet Interior Ministry. "I never had any doubts," he says now, "that I was on the right side of history."

Konrad Kalejs fought on the other side of that historical divide. A native Latvian, he served in a notorious unit called the Arajs Kommando, which murdered an estimated 30,000 civilians during the course of the war--most of them Jews. Now 86, he lives in Australia, where he has been a citizen since 1957. Kalejs, says Efraim Zuroff of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Jerusalem "served as an officer in one of the worst murder squads which operated in World War II." As yet formally accused of nothing by any government or tribunal, Kalejs is, for now anyway, a free man.

Vasily Kononov is not. At the age of 77, he sits in a grim prison in Riga, the capital of the now independent country of Latvia. Earlier this year, Latvia convicted Kononov of crimes against humanity. Specifically, he was found guilty of leading a Partisan raid on a tiny village 300 kilometers east of the capital, in which nine civilians (including one pregnant woman) were killed.

Kononov's is one of several cases Latvia has brought recently for alleged crimes committed during what it calls the Soviet "occupation." Among those charged have been Soviet-era KGB officers who allegedly participated in the forced deportations of thousands of Latvians. But no case is as explosively controversial as Kononov's--especially in Russia, where he is regarded as a hero, and where the contrast with the Kalejs case is regularly denounced on television shows and newspapers. Moscow's question is simple: why has Latvia so aggressively gone after alleged Soviet-era crimes, but not conducted one anti-Nazi trial during nearly 10 years of independence?

Like the other small Central European and Baltic nations, Latvia lies in history's stamping ground; it sits between Berlin and Moscow. Stalin seized Latvia in 1940, and to this day many Latvians view the German invasion a year later as "liberation" from a hated occupier. What the Russians call the Great Patriotic War was essentially a civil war for Latvians--and 55 years on, it is still deeply poisonous terrain. Yet it is also terrain that the current coalition government in Riga, using "war crimes" trials as a spade, is enthusiastically digging up. Doing so is good politics. Ethnic Russians still make up nearly 40 percent of the 2.3 million Latvian population (the biggest Russian bloc, in percentage terms, in any of the three Baltic states), but in the years immediately following independence, Russians were brazenly discriminated against. Public sector jobs, for example, went almost exclusively to Latvian-speaking citizens. External pressure from the European Union--Latvia wants in--helped end the most egregious discrimination. But now the government seems to be tapping into anti-Russian sentiment through other means. Latvian Justice Minister Valdis Birkavs insists the trials have nothing to do with politics; but the second biggest party in the current ruling coalition is the nationalistic Freedom and Fatherland Party. It supports the annual parade by a veterans group called the Legionnaires, even though the group had members in two Latvian Waffen SS divisions.

The charge that Riga finds itself open to--and which Moscow picks at relentlessly--is that Latvia wishes the Nazis had won the war. With some justification, Latvian officials argue that the Kononov-Kalejs contrast is unfair. Latvians who fought with the Nazis, like Kalejs, haven't been pursued in part because most of them left Latvia when the Wehrmacht did in 1944. "It's not as if there are a bunch of old Nazis sitting around Riga that the government is letting go scot-free," says one Western diplomat in Riga. Many old Soviets are still present. Further, Latvian officials--and some in the West--also argue that the evidence against Kalejs is not really so open and shut. Some say the case against Kalejs lacks living witnesses who unambiguously place him at the scene of Arajs atrocities.

Latvia argues that the case against Kononov, by contrast, is well documented. Indeed, the main evidence against him is an account of the raid of May 27, 1944, that he wrote himself. It was sitting in Latvia's historical archives.

But the Kononov case has its complexities too. Kononov, in a recent interview, says he exaggerated his role in the raid in a fit of youthful "boasting." He doesn't deny that it was carried out by his unit, or that he had a role in planning the attack--which under war-crimes law is sufficient grounds to convict. But he insists the prosecution ignores the context of the raid: he says, in effect, this was May of 1944, with war being waged at full tilt by both sides. And the intent of his unit was to capture people in the village who had informed the Nazis about the location of another Red Partisan group--information that led directly to the Nazis' killing 12 people, including a young woman and an infant.

Kononov's account of the motive for the raid does not appear to be in dispute. In fact, it is confirmed by a woman whom the prosecution describes as its star witness. Kononov, in his interview with NEWSWEEK, had insisted that there were no eyewitnesses placing him at the village on the date of the raid. Ausma Rubene, the prosecutor in Riga, insisted that there was: 80-year-old Maria Kuznetsova, who still lives near what was Malye Abaty. Rubene gave NEWSWEEK a detailed account of a deposition that Kuznetsova provided, in which she talked about hiding behind a tree as Kononov's unit moved past on their way to the village. But when this account was read back to her recently, Kuznetsova, who lives with her son on a small plot of land, replied: "That's not what I told them."

Asked if she saw Kononov's unit on the way to the village, she said flatly: "No." Then--unprompted by NEWSWEEK--she said what she did remember was coming upon a ditch where about a dozen bodies were being buried by "the Nazis." There was "a crowd of around 100 people gathered to watch,'' Kuznetsova said. "One of the bodies in the ditch was that of a little baby." These, she said, were the members of the Partisan unit that had been killed in late February--and for whom Kononov sought revenge.

Kononov's first appeal begins this week, but he's unlikely to prevail in Riga. His attorney says he may eventually take the case to the European Court of Human Rights; meanwhile, Moscow will probably pounce on Kuznetsova's assertion that the prosecution apparently distorted her deposition beyond recognition. The diplomatic pressure to let Kononov out of jail may well increase. In the meantime Riga says it is pursuing an extradition arrangement with Australia for Konrad Kalejs. The Russians, among others, will be very interested to see if a trial follows.