Gorbachev faces lawsuit over killings

The action has been brought forward by relatives of some of those who died in the final days of the USSR

The families of six people who lost their lives amid a Soviet crackdown against Lithuania’s pro-independence government have filed a lawsuit in the capital, Vilnius, against the USSR’s last leader, Mikhail Gorbachev.

The lawsuit, which was initiated on Thursday on the 31st anniversary of the event, seeks undisclosed damages for the now-90-year-old’s alleged failure at the time to stop the operation, which was carried out by Soviet troops.

“We have presented evidence that the then-president was in control of the army but did not act to prevent the planned criminal actions and did not stop the international crime while it was being executed,” a notice said.

The legal action “is aimed to hold Gorbachev, the highest-ranking USSR official, accountable for the January 13 massacre,” the relatives said in a statement.

Vilnius has attempted to persecute key-participants in the so-called January events in recent years. In 2019, a Lithuanian court found then-Soviet Minister of Defense Dmitry Yazov guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity. He was jailed for 10 years in absentia for the “exercise of Soviet aggression.”

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USSR President Mikhail Gorbachev, Chairman of the RSFSR Supreme Soviet Boris Yeltsin and other state's, RSFSR, CPSU, Moscow leaders heading a demonstrators' column. © Sputnik / Alexei Boitsov
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There have been past efforts to summon Gorbachev to court over the 1991 crackdown, which proved unsuccessful. In 2016, Vilnius Regional Court ruled that the former leader should stand in the docks, with its presiding judge Ainora Kornelija Maceviciene stating that any person having important information about the case can be called as a witness.

In the events of January 1991 – which is commonly referred to as Bloody Sunday – 13 individuals taking part in demonstrations were killed as Soviet troops were deployed to the Baltic state and seized several strategic facilities in Vilnius, including the TV Tower. One person also died of a heart attack during the unrest, and 600 to 700 people were injured, according to varying estimates.

The event came after authorities declared independence from the USSR and adopted the Act of the Re-Establishment of the State of Lithuania, which Soviet authorities denounced as violating the Constitution.

Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania were the last nations to be incorporated into the Soviet Union. Vilnius was the first of the republics to declare its independence. Relations between Russia and Lithuania have been strained since the collapse of the USSR, with the Baltic state going on to join the US-led military bloc NATO in 2004, alongside Tallinn and Riga.

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