- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 28, 2009

TALLINN, ESTONIA (AP) - Arnold Meri, a decorated Red Army veteran charged with genocide for deporting hundreds of his Estonian countrymen to Siberia in 1949, has died. He was 89.

Meri, a former communist party official and the cousin of late Estonian President Lennart Meri, died at his home in Tallinn late Friday, his family said Saturday.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev reacted by awarding Meri, regarded as a war hero in Russia, a posthumous medal of honor.

In 2007, Estonian prosecutors charged Meri with genocide, claiming he oversaw the roundup and deportation of 251 civilians on the island of Hiiumaa, 90 miles (140 kilometers) west of Tallinn, in March 1949. During that month, Soviet authorities organized large deportations in Estonia and its Baltic neighbors Latvia and Lithuania of people considered to be enemies of the Soviet Union.

Prosecutors said the Hiiumaa deportees, including women and children, were shipped to the mainland and then by train to labor camps in Siberia, where many of them died.

During the trial, Meri acknowledged taking part in the deportations, but pleaded not guilty to genocide, claiming he was just carrying out orders as a civil servant. The case was adjourned several times due to Meri’s failing health, and had not been completed at the time of his death.

The genocide charges have angered Moscow, and Russia’s Foreign Ministry has suggested the charges against him were fabricated.

The Soviet Red Army occupied the three Baltic countries in 1940 and began a program of deportations before it was driven out by Nazi Germany in 1941. After recapturing the Baltics in 1944, Soviet authorities resumed their deportations to Siberia.

Between March 25 and 27, 1949, more than 20,000 Estonians were rounded up and shipped to Siberia by train.

Estonia this week staged several commemoration ceremonies to mark the 60th anniversary of the mass deportations.

Lennart Meri, Estonian president between 1992-2001, was deported to Siberia with his family in June 1941, but managed to return to Estonia. He died in 2006.

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