Cousin of Estonia's former president charged over 1949 genocide

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The cousin of Estonia's late president Lennart Meri committed genocide by helping deport his countrymen to Siberia nearly 60 years ago, according to state prosecutors.

But Arnold Meri, 88, a former top-ranking Communist Party official in Estonia, claimed he was a mere civil servant. He also said his poor health meant that he was unlikely to survive a trial.

The prosecutors said Mr Meri is accused of genocide for having "participated in the preparations of the March 1949 deportations". At the time, Mr Meri - a decorated Soviet army veteran - was based in Tallinn, but was sent on a temporary assignment to the island of Hiiumaa, about 140 kilometres (about 90 miles) west of the Baltic nation's capital. There, he oversaw the capture of more than 250 civilians who were later shipped to the mainland and then by train to labour camps in Siberia, the prosecutors allege. Mr Meri is a cousin of Lennart Meri, the enormously popular former president who served two terms from 1992 to 2001, after the Baltic state gained independence from the Soviet Union. The former president and his family were deported to Siberia in June 1941, but returned to Estonia.

The Soviet army occupied Estonia and its Baltic neighbours Latvia and Lithuania in 1940, but was driven out by Nazi Germany in 1941. After the recapture of the Baltics in 1944, the Soviet authorities renewed the deportations. In March 1949, more than 20,000 Estonians were rounded up in three days and shipped to Siberia by train, prosecutors said.

Many deportees were allowed to return after the death of Joseph Stalin in 1953, but by then some 3,000 Estonians had died.

In the Eesti Päevaleht newspaper yesterday, Mr Meri said he has always acknowledged participating in the deportations, but played down his role. "It's clear I took part in the deportations on Hiiumaa. But not in the role I am accused of," he said.