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Estonian war figure laid to rest

Arnold Meri at his home on the outskirts of Tallinn, May 2007
Arnold Meri was one of a minority of Estonians who fought for the USSR

Arnold Meri, a Soviet war hero put on trial in his native Estonia over his role in Stalin-era deportations, has been buried in Tallinn.

Mr Meri, who suffered from ill-health, died on Friday at the age of 89 while judicial proceedings against him were still in progress.

He denied the charge of "genocide" but admitted playing a part in the deportation of 251 civilians in 1949.

Estonia's contention that genocide took place is not widely accepted.

He was the last surviving Estonian to have been awarded the USSR's top military decoration in World War II, the Gold Star, and a cousin of Estonia's first post-independence president, the late Lennart Meri.

Arnold Meri had argued that the charges brought against him in August 2007 were politically motivated because of his opposition to the government and his involvement in anti-fascist work.

Russia, long locked in a dispute with Estonia over the Soviet legacy, awarded him its Order of Honour posthumously within hours of his death.

'Not genocide'

He was laid to rest on Wednesday in a cemetery on the outskirts of the Estonian capital where members of his immediate family are also buried.

Arnold Meri in the uniform of a Soviet soldier, with his Gold Star (from a postcard belonging to the late Arnold Meri)
Every Estonian had only one decision to make: whose side to take in that bloody fight - the Nazis' or the anti-Hitler coalition's
Arnold Meri
interviewed by BBC News in 2007 about his war years

Several hundred people are said to have attended the funeral, which was conducted without military trappings.

Mr Meri's trial had been halted because of the state of his health but a review of the medical findings was ordered in December.

Estonia's security police say more than 40 of those deported from the island of Hiiumaa in 1949 either died on the way to, or in, Siberian camps.

Wounded in combat as a Soviet soldier early in the war, Mr Meri served as an official in Estonia after the country was re-annexed by the Soviets, who drove out Nazi forces.

He admitted being involved in deportations as a Soviet functionary but told his trial: "I do not consider myself guilty of genocide."

Since winning independence from the USSR in 1991, Estonia has been gradually attempting to prosecute those who helped in the deportation of more than 20,000 Estonians to Siberian camps.

Estonia has been accused, in turn, of failing to prosecute adequately suspected war criminals who sided with the Nazis.

Interviewed by BBC News in May 2007 about his wartime experiences, Arnold Meri said: "Every Estonian had only one decision to make: whose side to take in that bloody fight - the Nazis' or the anti-Hitler coalition's."




SEE ALSO
In pictures: Arnold Meri's life
02 Apr 09 |  In Pictures
Estonia tries Soviet war figure
20 May 08 |  Europe
Estonian man on genocide charge
23 Aug 07 |  Europe
When giants fought in Estonia
09 May 07 |  Europe
Country profile: Estonia
21 Jan 09 |  Country profiles
Timeline: Estonia
21 Jan 09 |  Country profiles



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