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Lithuania vigilante case exposes social divides

Lithuania Vigilante J_Angu.jpg

May 17, 2012: Protesters rallying outside the Presidential palace in Vilnius after riot police helped a mother, Laimute Stankunaite regain custody of her now 8-year-old daughter Deimante, in a tragic case that has riveted Lithuania and led to three deaths. (AP)

A desperate father launches a bloody vendetta against an alleged pedophile network of judges and politicians that he says preyed on his 5-year-old daughter. After two murders, Drasius Kedys hides in the countryside until he is found dead under mysterious circumstances.

It's not the plot of a Stieg Larsson crime novel but the outline of a sad and sordid case that has split Lithuania into two camps. One side believes Kedys fabricated the allegations as part of a custody dispute with the girl's mother; the other sees a wider conspiracy of corrupt child molesters running the country. Experts say the dispute, which has become a national obsession, reflects deeper currents of discontent in a post-Soviet society plagued by emigration and the world's highest suicide rate.

Two years after Kedys' body was found, the case still inflames passions in Lithuania, and last month even reached the U.S., where an angry mob of Lithuanian-American Kedys supporters swarmed the Lithuanian president's motorcade ahead of the NATO summit in Chicago.

"If I were able to say where the truth is and who is right, I would have done so long ago," President Dalia Grybauskaite told a group of Lithuanian-Americans in Lemont, the Chicago suburb where she ran into the protest. "Unfortunately, the whole story is very complicated and corrupted by investigators from the beginning."

The drama unfolded in Kaunas, a city of 500,000 in south-central Lithuania notorious for poor infrastructure, lopsided wooden homes, and not least of all, corrupt officials wedded to local crime syndicates.

Kedys, a bodybuilder businessman, was a man determined to retain custody of his daughter.

Not only did he accuse the girl's mother of pimping her to a pedophile ring, but he video-recorded the girl giving detailed descriptions of sexual acts he claims she was asked to perform by three grown men, then sent the video to over a hundred politicians and law enforcement officials.

When his appeal fell on deaf years, Kedys took the law in his own hands.

In October 2009, he allegedly shot and killed two people he had accused of abetting the alleged pedophile ring — one of whom was the mother's sister. He then disappeared, only to be found dead six months later, in April 2010. Police said he died after binge drinking and choking on his own vomit — a finding that many Lithuanians don't believe.

The tragedy didn't end there. Two months later, one of three men whom Kedys accused of molesting his daughter, died after ostensibly falling from his dune buggy and drowning in a creek — one that was only 8 inches (20 centimeters) deep.

Lithuania appears evenly split between those who see Kedys as a vigilante hero, and those who believe he snapped while trying to win the custody dispute against the girl's mother.

The division cuts like a knife through Lithuanian society, souring dinner party conversations and ruining friendships.

The most fervent group of Kedys supporters — dubbed "the violets" after the color of a T-shirt Kedys wore in a now iconic photo of him and his daughter — have continued his struggle on the streets. For six months they surrounded the house where Kedys' relatives were keeping the girl, determined to prevent police from enforcing a court order that gave custody to the mother, Laimute Stankunaite, who claims Kedys fabricated the pedophilia claims to discredit her.

Police finally broke through the wall of protesters on May 17 — arresting nearly 40 of them — allowing Stankunaite and her lawyer to whisk the girl into an awaiting police van.

Later the same day hundreds of enraged Kedys supporters turned up to demonstrate outside the President Grybauskaite's residence in Vilnius.

"Lithuania is being demolished with the help of authorities as they use force against an innocent child and destroy the republic's moral foundations," said protester Darius Kuolys, a former adviser to ex-President Valdas Adamkus.

Days later, Grybauskaite got another feel of public wrath — only this time in Chicago, where she was attending the NATO summit. In Lemont, as she headed to a Lithuanian community event, a crowd of hostile Lithuanian-Americans blocked her car, shouting "disgrace" and waving banners saying Lithuania was "blind to children's tears." Secret Service officers had to jump out of their vehicles and push aside protesters to let the motorcade pass.

What actually happened to the girl is a mystery.

The main evidence cited by "the violets" is the 3-year-old video testimony Kedys made of the girl, who is now 8. A psychiatric evaluation found it unlikely that she had made it all up, but skeptics say it's possible that Kedys had coached her. Doctors who examined her found no physical injuries, and prosecutors dropped the investigation for lack of proof.

The fact that so many Lithuanians are prepared to side with a presumed killer despite such inconclusive evidence reflects an overwhelming lack of trust in public institutions. A Eurobarometer survey in November 2010 showed that faith in the courts was the lowest in Lithuania among 27 European Union member states.

"People have found a way to express their dissatisfaction with their lives and their country. This is the main driving force of the movement," said Andrius Kaluginas, a psychologist who has criticized the "violets."

Lithuania's exuberance at joining the EU and NATO in 2004 was soon replaced by disillusionment as the previously booming economy nearly collapsed during the global financial crisis.

Lithuania remains one of the EU's poorest members and has not overcome the social problems that have dogged it before and after the Soviet breakup in 1991. Alcoholism is rampant, and the suicide rate is the highest in the world, according to the most recent data from the World Health Organization.

Many Lithuanians feel nostalgic for the economic security of Soviet times. Life was grim behind the Iron Curtain but at least the state provided a stable living and welfare benefits. The freedoms of capitalism have also brought wrenching uncertainties and widened the gap between haves and have-nots.

Reaching deeper back in history, the people of this tiny nation recall the greatness of medieval times, when Lithuania, together with Poland, lorded over a swath of eastern Europe from the Baltic to the Black seas — a golden age that the country will never resurrect.

And the country is shrinking — at an alarming rate. Hundreds of thousands of Lithuanians have moved other EU countries, primarily Ireland, Britain, and Norway, in search of a better life. Over the past decade, Lithuania's population, now 3 million, has declined 1 percent annually for a total loss of more than 300,000 people, according to last year's census.

With such problems at home, Lithuanians have shown little interest in the wider economic crisis in Europe, which is seen mainly as an issue affecting wealthier nations in the West.

The Kedys saga is likely to continue until general elections in October, as many politicians are keen to keep tensions high. Kedys' supporters have even registered a party that will vie for seats in Parliament: The Way of Courage.

Critics say the mob justice mentality prevailing in the case is a sign that Lithuania has not fully embraced the values underpinning the EU.

"A person who likely killed two people was made a martyr, and the mob has created its own code of law," said Dalia Kuodyte, a liberal member of Parliament. "Lithuania must prove it is still a judicial and democratic state that respects the law and human rights."