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#9 - JRL 7003
Putin Praises Former Soviet Partisan
January 3, 2003

MOSCOW (AP) - Russian President Vladimir Putin sent a congratulatory birthday letter Friday to a one-time Soviet partisan in Latvia who is on trial for alleged war crimes.

Vasily Kononov, 80, was sentenced to six years in jail in 2000 for allegedly ordering the execution in 1944 of nine civilians, including a pregnant woman, whom he suspected of Nazi sympathies.

In April 2000, Latvia's Supreme Court ordered Kononov to be released from jail, saying it questioned some of the evidence against him. Prosecutors requested a retrial, which began last May.

Many Russians consider Kononov a war hero, and Putin granted him Russian citizenship in April 2000.

``Your selfless struggle against infringement in modern Latvia of human rights and attempts to rewrite history evokes sincere support in Russian society,'' Putin said in the letter.

The killings occurred during the Nazi occupation of Latvia, when Kononov led a small band of Soviet partisans. He claimed that the civilians got caught in the cross fire of a battle between partisans and Nazis.

Latvia was independent before being annexed by the Soviet Union in 1940. After the 1941-44 Nazi occupation, the Soviet army returned, remaining there until the Baltic state regained independence after the 1991 Soviet collapse.

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