Lithuania convicts ex-USSR defense minister of war crimes

VILNIUS, Lithuania — A Lithuanian court on Wednesday found the Soviet Union's last defense minister guilty of war crimes for his role in a violent crackdown on the Baltic country's independence move 28 years ago.

The Vilnius Regional Court sentenced 94-year-old Dmitry Yazov in absentia to 10 years in prison.

He and 66 other Soviet-era officials were on trial for the violence that left 14 people dead and hundreds injured when Soviet troops stormed a television tower and an adjacent building in Vilnius on Jan. 13, 1991.

"On this historic day, justice has come. Those responsible for the death of peaceful freedom defenders have been sentenced," Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite said.

The defendants were citizens of Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine.

The trial began in 2016. Only two defendants were present in court with most of the others being in Russia, which has refused to hand them over. Those present have pleaded not guilty.

Russia had also rejected the Lithuania court's request to question former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

The verdict comes at a time of growing military activity in the Baltic Sea region, with several reports of alleged airspace violations by Russian military aircraft and an increased presence of Russian military vessels.

Lithuania and the two other Baltic countries fear that after Russia's military involvement in Georgia and Ukraine, other former Soviet republics could be next.

The assault on the television facilities was the deadliest Soviet action to crush secessionist movements in the Baltics. All three countries won independence later in 1991 as the Soviet Union collapsed. They became members of NATO and the European Union in 2004.

The Russian embassy in Vilnius has complained that embassy staff were not allowed to attend the hearing.

The embassy said that although the hearing was open to public "Russian diplomats including Ambassador Alexander Udaltsov were denied access to it" without explanation.

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