Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Prosecutors Reopen Beria Treason Case

Three associates of Stalin's dreaded secret police chief, Lavrenty Beria, who were shot in 1953 for "state treason" are to have their charges revised.

But unlike some victims of the Stalinist purges that they carried out, the three are not being rehabilitated, officials at the military prosecutor's office said. Still, some historical justice is waiting to be done.

Even 45 years after the trial that sent Beria and his associates to their deaths, little is known about the proceedings. Their conviction of state treason, a standard political charge, does not reflect the crimes they committed.

The case against Beria unfolded amid a fierce struggle for power after Josef Stalin's death in March 1953. Beria's side lost out in the Kremlin battle to the forces around Nikita Khrushchev.

Khrushchev secured his victory by arresting Beria and six of his close allies. In December 1953, they were sentenced to death by a court convened specially for their trial and comprised of members of the government and Supreme Court officials. All seven were shot the same day.

The convictions of three of them are being revised at the request of their relatives, said Sergei Ushakov, the deputy military prosecutor.

"All that will happen is they will be awarded different charges, as opposed to Article 58, or state treason, which was mentioned in the initial case. There is no talk about rehabilitation," Ushakov said.

The three men are Vladimir Dekanozov, who at the time of his arrest was the interior minister of Georgia; Vsevolod Merkulov, the minister of state control; and Pavel Meshik, the interior minister of Ukraine.

All three worked closely with Beria in the mammoth state security system that carried out the repressions that swept the Soviet Union under Stalin's rule. They and the others tried with them began their careers in Georgia, where Beria was the Communist Party boss, before being brought to Moscow during the late 1930s.

Their case is not the first to be revised. Viktor Abakumov, a subordinate of Beria's who was state security minister from 1946 to 1951, had his conviction changed recently, from state treason to a charge of exceeding his official powers.

Nikita Petrov of the Memorial human rights organization said it only makes sense to revise the convictions of Stalin's henchmen.

"Of all the crimes they committed, anything could be listed, from rape to massive theft of state property, but never state treason. Their main crimes were crimes against justice," Petrov said.

During the years of Stalin's terror, an estimated 20 million people died in the repressions carried out by Beria and others.

State treason became a standard political charge. "It was a problem of our judicial system that they could not, or did not want to, list the real crimes committed," Petrov said.

But overturning the treason convictions and changing the records of Beria's associates would have little real effect on how they go down in history, the human rights activist said.

"Even if, after a revision of the case, somebody is fully rehabilitated from a legal point of view, he will still be remembered as a criminal," Petrov said.

Few high-ranking security officials under Stalin were ever brought to justice.

For Petrov, the more important issue regarding the trial of Beria and his associates is the secrecy that still surrounds it.

In 1992, President Boris Yeltsin signed a decree ordering all such cases to be declassified within three months. However, little has been done to implement the presidential decree.

Officials at the military prosecutor's office still insist that Beria's case remain classified.

"The decree was signed when there was a political need for such a gesture, but since then, the need has faded," Petrov said. "Many officials still think that declassifying those cases will somehow ruin the reputation of the country."