By The Austrian Independent (August 8, 2011)
Lithuanian envoys have accused Austrian decision-makers of failing to answer their questions regarding the controversial custody of a war crimes suspect.
Mikhail Golovatov was released just 22 hours after he was put in detention at Vienna International Airport (VIA or VIE) last month. The 62-year-old former official of Soviet secret service agency KGB arrived at the Austrian aerodrome on an Austrian Airlines (AUA) flight from Moscow Domodedovo Airport (DME) in Russia. It is unclear whether the Russian planned to visit Austria or continue his journey to another country after changing flights at VIA.
Golovatov is made responsible for the murder of more than one dozen people on the so-called Bloody Sunday of Vilnius in January 1991. Fourteen unarmed civilians were killed by Soviet soldiers and KGB officers as they tried to stop the invaders from entering the federal parliament building and a TV tower in the capital of Lithuania. Golovatov masterminded the actions of feared KGB unit Alpha on the Bloody Sunday of Vilnius. Lithuania issued a European arrest warrant on the ex-KGB official over the violent encounter in which more than 1,000 people were injured.
Prosecutors in Korneuburg, Lower Austria, decided to release him again after considering Lithuania’s accusations as too vague. Austrian officials have been criticised for allegedly giving Lithuanian prosecutors too little time to translate the charges into English. The occurrences caused a severe diplomatic and political rift between the Alpine country and the Baltic state which declared its independence from the Soviet Union in 1990.
Now a Lithuanian justice ministry official claimed the Austrian delegation his team met with last week did not answer their questions. Tomas Vaitkevicius told media in his homeland at the weekend the Austrian-Lithuanian summit in Vienna was “constrictive.” However, he also pointed out that representatives of the Austrian state prosecution and the country’s justice ministry failed to answer any of the questions he and his team posed during the talks. Vaitkevicius was quoted as saying that the Austrian officials “at least tried to answer our questions.”
The delegations agreed to hold another meeting to improve their relationship considering juridical aspects to avoid another feud. Juridical and political authorities did not say when the next gathering would take place. The Lithuanian government issued a protest note to Helmut Koller, at the Austrian embassy in Vilnius, a few days before the first summit. Politicians in Latvia and Estonia also expressed criticism over Austria’s decision to release Golovatov.
Austrian Green Party official Peter Pilz recently caused a stir by claiming he was provided with information disclosing that officials working for the Austrian ministries of justice, interior and foreign policies “aiding the escape” of Golovatov. The left-wing opposition politician attacked decision-makers for “falling down on their knees before Russia” to “get rid” of the alleged war criminal “as quickly as possible.”
People’s Party (ÖVP) Justice Minister Beatrix Karl dismissed accusations that prosecutors were influenced by pressure from Russian leaders. However, a spokesman for the Austrian justice ministry also announced last weekend Karl considered changing laws considering international arrest warrants. The ministry official explained the minister was in favour of abandoning current restrictions which mean European arrest warrants only apply to crimes allegedly carried out after 2002.
Korneuburg prosecutor Karl Schober told magazine “profil” that the rather short deadline for more precise information on the charges against Golovatov was determined by the justice minister. This statement meant critics of the Austrian government coalition of the Social Democrats (SPÖ) and the ÖVP felt confirmed in their belief that political pressure preceded the release of the former KGB decision-maker.
Golovatov could have been kept in custody for up to 48 hours, according to “profil”. The Austrian magazine criticised Lithuania for having been “poorly prepared” in the case. However, “profil” also identified a co-responsibility of Austria considering that a “historically important trial” will not take place. “Charges against Golovatov, the alleged executor of the Soviet coup d’état, would have given Lithuanians a feeling of justice over the painful chapter of their way to independence,” the Viennese weekly magazine writes.
Othmar Karas, who heads the ÖVP’s delegation in the European Parliament (EP), said an apology of Austria to Lithuania was “overdue.” While former ÖVP Vice Chancellor Erhard Busek called on the Austrian ministers in charge to step down, the federal justice ministry said it wanted to improve the communication with its Lithuanian counterpart.
Johannes Voggenhuber, who represented the Austrian Greens in the EP until 2009, announced he feared appeals on Austrian lawmakers to resign due to the Golovatov case were “pointless” because of a lack of “culture of responsibility” in the Alpine country which joined the European Union in 1995.
Manfred Nowak – a former Special Rapporteur on Torture for the United Nations (UN) – claimed Austria did wrong by releasing Golovatov “so quickly.” Nowak told the Kurier newspaper: “Austria should have taken more time to investigate the accusations brought forward by Lithuania.”
Former ÖVP official Heinrich Neisser said the Austrian government should have discussed the question of whether releasing Golovatov or not after he was put in custody. The ex-second president of the federal parliament said it seemed this did not happen. Neisser added he “assumed” Russia then intervened “as this is a common procedure.”
Nowak claimed there “has been a certain handling – not only in Austria: don’t mess with powerful Russia.”
The Greens called for the installation of a special parliamentary committee to examine the occurrences. Their appeal was rejected by the SPÖ-ÖVP administration. The Freedom Party (FPÖ) and the FPÖ’s main right-wing competitor, the Alliance for the Future of Austria (BZÖ), also failed to show support for the Green faction’s proposal.
Foreign Ministry General Secretary Johannes Kyrle stressed Russia did not put any pressure on the Korneuburg state prosecution. Kyrle said: “Austria cannot be put under pressure that easily.”
ÖVP boss and Foreign Minister Michael Spindelegger and SPÖ Chancellor Werner Faymann said the decision not to extradite Golovatov to Lithuania but let him travel back to his homeland “was made by an independent Austrian judiciary.”
Viviane Reding, the European Commissioner for Justice, Fundamental Rights and Citizenship, announced she concluded Austria broke no laws by releasing Golovatov. Reding also said EU member countries “must not forget about the political dimension” of their decisions.