By Benjamin Smith

A stoic old man sits before the bench, holding his crutch and protesting that he was only following orders, that he had no choice, that it was a long time ago.

It's a familiar scene to Westerners from the trickle of Nazi war crimes prosecutions still taking place in North America, Europe and Australia. And in the Baltic states, in small but growing numbers, old men are being sent to die in prison for their actions in service of another regime - the series of deportations people here call "Latvia's genocide."

On Sept. 27, the Riga Regional Court sentenced an ailing Mikhails Farbtuhs, 83, to seven years in prison. It was the second conviction under Latvian law against genocide. Alfons Noviks, the people's commissar who headed the security police during the second wave of deportations in 1949, died in prison under a life sentence.

But Noviks was a commissar, the most obvious target for prosecution in Latvia; Farbtuhs was a local apparatchik, the Daugavpils representative of a police network stretching back to NKVD headquarters in Moscow. He was found guilty of the deaths of 31 individuals - most of them Latvian patriots and members of the local intelligentsia - whose deportations to Siberia he supervised. Four of those 31 were executed in Russia, the others died in crowded cattle cars, or starved and froze in the Soviet East.

The deportees included policemen and members of the patriotic national militia, the "Aizsargi," as well as lawyers, doctors and academics who had supported the between-wars Latvian nationalist government. The scale and arbitrariness of the terror was new to Latvia, which had been independent from the first red terror of the 1920s and from the early years of Stalinism.

Lawyer Nikolajs Zunins was one of the Latvians deported under Farbtuhs. His daughter recalled to the Latvian daily Diena his deportation: "My father said that we didn't do anything wrong, so nothing can happen to us. As a lawyer, he was sure about that. He got on the train and my mother still didn't know that she was seeing him for the last time." A member of the Aizsargi, Zunins was shot in 1942.

Farbtuhs, through his lawyer Alexandrs Ogurcovs, denies the charges on a number of familiar grounds: His own life would have been in danger if he had failed to obey, and he had no idea what would ultimately become of the deportees. Besides, Ogurcovs argued, the Latvian court has no right to try a case of international law. Late in the game, he even produced a witness willing to testify that Farbtuhs had intervened to save her family from deportation.

Another Nuremberg

"With this decision, we are moving one step closer to the equivalent of a Nuremberg-type pronouncement against communism," says Matthew Kott, the Canadian-Latvian historian who curates Riga's Occupation Museum. Kott sees in the conviction of an apparatchik, a follower rather than a leader, a symbolic move "to condemn communism as a criminal regime."

He and other Latvian nationalists look forward to the prosecution of two other local NKVD operatives, the dates of which have not yet been set, and to the December trial of red partisan leader Vasily Kononov. The last two years have seen four similar prosecutions in Estonia, putting the northern Baltics ahead of all other post-Soviet states in their willingness to convict former Soviet officials.

The trials arouse inevitable hostility from Russia, whose Foreign Ministry on Oct. 1 denounced Farbtuhs' sentence as politically motivated. Russia has also criticized the Latvian prosecutor's division of totalitarian crimes for attacking the old and weak.

"He is now old and an invalid," concedes Uldis Pauls Strelis, the founder of the totalitarian crimes unit. "But his victims were old women, small babies."

Strelis, who retired in June, is himself a survivor of Soviet repression: When he was 11, the NKVD packed him and his family on a cattle train to the Siberian city of Omsk, where they spent five and a half years before being allowed to return.

"Have I the right to forgive and to forget?" Strelis asks. "I have no such right."

Like Kott, Strelis sees Farbtuhs' conviction as part of a broader case against Soviet rule in the Baltics. The Soviets deported some 15,000 people from Latvia in 1941 and another 40,000 in 1949. "The whole Soviet government is guilty," not just Farbtuhs, he says.

Strelis' successor, Janis Osis, would not comment on the Farbtuhs case or on other investigations "especially because of our big brother Russia."

A Latvian genocide?

The prosecution of Soviet "crimes against humanity" have also raised concern among Jewish and Israeli organizations, which object to the parallel between communist terror and the Nazi Holocaust.

"There is no similarity between this case and Nuremberg," said Ronit Ben Dor, press secretary for the Embassy of Israel in Latvia. "The deportations were not on such a large scale as the Holocaust," and they do not fit the guidelines for international law on genocide, she said. Unlike the murder of the Jews, the Soviets targeted not at religious or ethnic groups but political dissidents.

Osis, the new chief prosecutor of the division of totalitarian crimes, did little to silence such critics when he told The Baltic Times of Farbtuhs case: "This is not different from what happened in Germany. This is even worse - what Stalin did to Latvians - and not only Latvians, but to all of Latvia's population." Soviet occupation endured in Latvia for 40 years, Osis pointed out.

Most Western historians question the application of the term "genocide" to Soviet crimes in Latvia.

"It was not Stalin's design to exterminate the Latvians from Europe," says Professor David Kirby, who studies Baltic history at the University of London.

In fact, Kirby sees behind the focus on Soviet crimes an attempt to avoid awkward questions of Latvian complicity in the Holocaust.

"It's an easy ploy to say, 'But we were victims too.'" While the Latvian government has initiated a professional historical commission to study both Nazi and Soviet crimes, Kirby worries it will be hard to find researchers willing to dig up secrets of the Nazi era.

The Occupation Museum's Kott, like many Latvians, dismisses complaints that Latvia has not done enough to prosecute Latvians who collaborated with the Nazis.

"Everybody else in the world is involved in the act of seeking out Nazi war criminals," he said. "The only people who are involved in the prosecution of Soviet crimes are the people hurt by those crimes."

Kott pictures the Baltic states at the vanguard of a formal European denunciation of communism; in the meantime, he hopes that the Farbtuhs' case and other similar trials will at least help the Balts exorcise their Soviet ghosts.

"The Americans don't care, no one cares," Kott says. "If the Latvians don't do it, nobody will try."

The Baltic Times

to: Crimes Against Humanity