A bitter row over freedom of speech has broken out in Lithuania as a local politician faces jail for his views on a massacre in the country’s capital 20 years ago.
The official account is that in January 1991, 14 people were killed in shootings by Soviet troops.
The incident sparked international support for the demonstrators. However, one local politician now faces a possible jail sentence for disagreeing with the official version of events and saying it was orchestrated by Lithuanians.
Algirdas Paleckis is a member of the Vilnius city council and says Soviet soldiers were not responsible.
“I am basing my opinion on the witnesses and on a book which was published by the former head of the national security committee,” said Paleckis. “He wrote that from this tower, representatives of the Lithuanian authorities were shooting down into the crowd. And other witnesses who I know, who live in the area, pointed to those houses on the roofs of which there were people shooting.”
Fresh opinions on historical events are nothing unusual. Some are based on newly discovered evidence, others merely conspiracy theories.
What is different about Paleckis’ argument is that it could land him in jail.
“I’m facing two years in prison; I may receive a fine or up to two years in prison. I think this is absurd in terms of human rights and freedom of opinion,” argued Paleckis.
Absurd or not, it is the law in Lithuania.
“The Lithuanian Penal Code provides for criminal responsibility for public negation of genocide, crimes against humanity or war crimes,” said Gintautas Stalnionis, a spokesman for Vilnius Regional Prosecutor’s Office. “Persons who belittle these crimes or mock victims should be held responsible. The 1991 aggression against Lithuania and its citizens falls under the definition of a war crime.”
As an elected official, Paleckis is immune from prosecution. However, he has waived this right and is prepared to stand trial.
But should questioning history bring with it a criminal investigation?
History may not agree with the opinion of Paleckis when it comes to the events of January 1991. However, those same historians are unsure whether it is the role of the legal system to determine who can say what about the circumstances of the deaths of 14 people in Vilnius.