Vasiliy Kononov, a Russian partisan accused of leading a group of men who in 1944 killed nine unarmed villagers in Latvia, was indeed a war criminal, the European Court of Human Rights has ruled.
The May 17 decision by the court’s Grand Chamber overturns a 2008 ruling by the court that while Kononov might have been involved in the World War II killings, there was no basis in law for charging and convicting him for war crimes.
Kononov, who was born in Latvia in 1923, was accused of leading a group of Red Partisans who, wearing German uniforms, in May 1944 entered the village of Mazie Bati and, after finding German weapons hidden in several homes, shot a number of men and set fire to several buildings with people inside. In all, nine villagers—including three women, one of whom was pregnant—were killed.
The Latvian Foreign Ministry sees the decision as confirmation of the international legal principle that war crimes do not have a statute of limitations, a ministry spokesperson said in a May 17 press release. The ministry also condemned what it said were efforts by Russia to influence the court, including inappropriately revealing how justices voted before the opinion was published.
The Russian Foreign Ministry, meanwhile, blasted the Grand Chamber’s ruling. The decision agrees with those who would rewrite history and want to whitewash the Nazis and their collaborators, according to a statement from Moscow.
Two years ago, the court in a 4-3 decision awarded Kononov EUR 30,000 in compensation after ruling that the ex-soldier’s actions may not have amounted to war crimes given the law at the time. Kononov had appealed his conviction in Latvia, claiming it violated Article 7 of the European Convention, which prohibits persons from being found guilty for acts that were not considered criminal offences at the time they were committed. In 1944, the only clear international law governing war crimes was the Hague Convention of 1907, and neither Latvia nor Russia were signatories to that document.
Latvia appealed the decision to the court’s Grand Chamber, which on May 17 ruled 14-3 that Article 7 had not been violated.
In its opinion issued in Strasbourg, France, the Grand Chamber ruled that by 1944 various rules and customs governed the conduct of war and defined what constituted a war crime. Even if the residents of Mazie Bati could be considered combatants rather than civilians—because of the weapons found in the village—they should have received some protection from the Red Partisans.
“As combatants, the villagers would also have been entitled to protection as prisoners of war under the control of the applicant and his unit and their subsequent ill-treatment and summary execution would have been contrary to the numerous rules and customs of war protecting prisoners of war,” according to a press release announcing the court’s decision. “Therefore, like the Latvian courts, the Court considered that the ill-treatment, wounding and killing of the villagers had constituted a war crime.”
The court added that given the laws and customs governing war, Kononov as the commanding officer should have known that his unit’s actions would constitute a war crime for which he could be held accountable.
The Grand Chamber’s decision is final.
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