Poles take Russia to court over 1940 Katyn massacre

Andrew Osborn
Monday 24 April 2006 00:00
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Relatives of Polish soldiers executed by Joseph Stalin's secret police in one of the Second World War's most infamous massacres are to take Russia to the European Court of Human Rights to try to make it disclose the full truth about the killings.

In the so-called Katyn atrocities, personally ordered by Stalin in 1940, the NKVD (forerunner of the KGB) killed 21,587 Polish Army reservists in cold blood on the grounds that they were "hardened and uncompromising enemies of Soviet authority". Russia has refused to prosecute surviving suspects or reveal their names. It is keeping two-thirds of the files on the subject classified, and has classed the murders as an ordinary crime whose statute of limitations has expired.

Relatives of victims say that the killings amounted to genocide and that Russia has a moral obligation to open its archive on them.

The killings took place at three locations but the massacre took its name from just one, the Katyn Forest in modern-day Belarus. The murders killed many of Poland's intelligentsia; among the dead were officers, chaplains, writers, professors, journalists, engineers, lawyers, aristocrats and teachers. All were killed by a single shot to the back of the head.

Some 15,000 bodies have been found and the rest are thought to be still buried in secret mass graves.

The murders have soured Moscow's relations with Poland for six decades, with Warsaw accusing the Kremlin of deceit, a lack of remorse and brutal indifference. It was only in 1989 that the then Soviet President, Mikhail Gorbachev, admitted that the killings had been perpetrated by Stalin's secret police. Before that the USSR blamed the atrocities on the Nazis who occupied the area during the war, even going to the trouble of reburying bodies and bulldozing evidence in an elaborate attempt to deflect blame.

Seventy families related to the murdered soldiers are to lodge a case at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg in the next few weeks. Some want surviving suspects to be prosecuted, while others simply want the killings to be classed as genocide and for Russia to be forced to disclose everything it knows about the atrocity.

"We are not interested in revenge or even in punishing anyone," said one Katyn survivor, Mgr Zdzislaw Peszkowski, aged 85. "We only want the full truth to be universally known. This is not just a Polish issue. Revealing all the circumstances of this atrocity is needed to finally close the chapter known as the Second World War."

Lawyers for the families believe that Russia flouted the European Convention on Human Rights by never properly investigating the atrocities. Russia's "investigation" lasted for more than a decade on and off and was definitively closed in September 2004. Poland's Institute of National Remembrance has said that Russia's position on Katyn was a "humiliation of the memory of the Polish victims and an offence to the feelings of their living family members".

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