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75 Years since the Finnish War Trials

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One of the things I love most about the Law Library is the amazing resources we have. Had this been a normal year, I would have been able to spend this morning flipping through the physical copies of the Finnish gazette (Finlands författningssamling) to find historic legislation. One such piece of legislation is the Act on Punishment of Those Responsible for the War (Lagen om bestraffning av de krigsansvariga) from 1945. The law was adopted in 1945 and retroactively criminalized acts committed during the Second World War. It was used during the Finnish War Responsibility Trials of 1945-46. The final verdict was delivered 75 years ago this month, on February 21, 1946.


During the early years of the Second World War, Finland was in the Winter War with the Soviet Union following the Soviet army’s invasion of Finland in 1939. The Winter War ended in 1940 but thereafter Finland found itself between a rock and a hard place between Germany and the Soviet Union, fearing both sides.

In 1944, President Risto Ryti entered into an agreement with Germany (known as the Ryti-Ribbentrop Agreement), which meant that Finland received weapons from Germany to use against the Soviet Union. In light of this agreement, Finland was described by Time Magazine on July 10, 1994, as being “Bewitched and Betrayed.” However, President Ryti himself declared that: “By signing this agreement I am preventing a military catastrophe and the occupation of our country, which would result in a terrible disaster for our nation.”

Shortly thereafter, President Ryti resigned for health reasons, and through a special act in Parliament, President Mannerheim replaced him. Both presidents and the Finnish Parliament determined that Finland was no longer bound by its agreement with Germany, as it had been concluded without the consent of the Parliament, and instead Mannerheim quickly sought peace with the Soviet Union.

On September 19, 1944, Finland entered an armistice agreement with the Soviet Union. The terms of the truce required that Finland take responsibility for continuing the war with the Soviet Union. (Art. 11.) As part of that agreement, the Finnish delegation also undertook to hold those responsible for the war accountable. Specifically article 13 provided that: “Finland undertakes to collaborate with the Allied powers in the apprehension of persons accused of war crimes and in their trial.” The Finnish Prime Minister Ernst von Born did not mention the war crimes in his radio address announcing the armistice, and the meaning of the clause was not immediately understood.

Adoption of the Law

Because Finnish law did not provide any basis for holding the former leaders responsible as required under the armistice agreement, the Finnish government proceeded to propose the adoption of a new retroactive law in Parliament. The government proposal (Regeringens Proposition (Prop.) till Riksdagen med förslag till lag om bestraffning av de krigsansvariga No. 54 1945) criminalized the former Finnish government’s actions with a prison sentence of up to eight years, hard labor, or life imprisonment if particularly gross.

Before becoming law, the proposal underwent review and was commented on by the Constitutional Law Committee, which objected to the fact that the law made behavior illegal retroactively. The Committee particularly noted that the meaning of article 13 of the armistice, requiring responsibility for war crimes, was not sufficiently clear, and that it was possible to argue that the law as drafted went beyond what was necessary with regards to Finland’s international obligations under the armistice. (Grundlagsutskottets betänkande N:o 40 med anledning av regeringens proposition med förslag till lag om bestraffning av de krigsansvariga samt tvenne lagmotioner angående samma sak.) Nevertheless the Committee did not oppose the bill outright, stating:

Nevertheless, as the government, which is in the best position to weigh all the relevant conditions,  has considered the proposed law necessary for fulfillment of the obligations in question article contained in the armistice, the Constitution Committee does not consider itself able to oppose the adoption of the bill, despite its content and exceptional character.

The Constitutional Committee had issued a report the previous year (1944) when arrests were made of individuals for their involvement in the war, and although several mistakes vis-a-vis the arrests were mentioned by the Committee, it did not deem them outright illegal, with reference to the obligations under the armistice. (Grundlagsutskottets betänkande N:o 161 med anledning av att till riksdagens kännedom bragts en förordning angående fängslande av vissa personer (1944).)

Although several members of Parliament made reservations against the law, it passed with 129 to 12 votes, and was signed into law on September 12, 1945.

The law provided that:

1 § Any member of the government, who made a decisive contribution to Finland’s accession to the war in 1941 on the side of Germany against the Soviet Union, or the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, or during the course of the war prevented peace, may for abusing the position to the detriment of the state be sentence to imprisonment, hard labor, or life imprisonment.

What is stipulated in § 47 of the Constitution and § 7 of the Act of 25 November 1922 regarding manners for the parliament to review the legality of the members’ actions by the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of Justice may not constitute an obstacle to sentencing a person who has been President or member of the Republic Prime Minister, for acts covered by para. 1.

The Finnish War Trials

The Finnish Prime Minister Juho Kusti Paasikivion, on November 6, 1945, declared that prosecution be brought under the Act on Punishment of Those Responsible for the War, against former Finnish government leaders. A special court was established: the War Guilt Tribunal. (2 §  Lagen om bestraffning av de krigsansvariga.) The Tribunal was made up of members of the Supreme Court, the Administrative Supreme Court, Faculty of the Helsinki Law School, and Members of the Finnish Parliament. Eight men were charged with the crime that became commonly known as “war guilt”:

The specific crimes that they were tried for included declaring war using Ryti’s emergency powers without first consulting the Finnish Parliament. The men were thus not tried for crimes against humanity, or international war crimes, but rather for making the war go on longer than necessary by signing the above-mentioned agreement with Germany. President Ryti in his defense claimed that the specific reason for not involving the Parliament was to be legally able to leave the agreement as soon as the weapons needed had been received.

The trial was initiated on November 15, 1945, and a final verdict was delivered on February 21, 1946. The Tribunal issued its original verdict on February 16, 1946, but the punishments were not deemed severe enough by the Control Commission (made up of representatives from the Soviet Union, United Kingdom, and Northern Ireland), and therefore rejected. Instead, on February 21, 1946, the court re-issued a conviction and all men were sentenced to imprisonment or forced labor. Listed below by the severity of the sentence:

  • Risto Ryti 10 years hard labor.
  • J.W. Rangell 6 years imprisonment.
  • Edwin Linkomies 5 years, 6 months imprisonment.
  • Väinö Tanner 5 years, 6 months imprisonment.
  • T.M. Kivimäki 5 years imprisonment
  • Henrik Ramsay 2 years, 6 months imprisonment.
  • Antti Kukkonen 2 years imprisonment.
  • Tyko Reinikka 2 years imprisonment.

The final Treaty of Peace between the Allied and Associated Powers and Finland, was signed on February, 20, 1947, in Paris. None of the men sentenced as part of the War Guilt Trial served their full sentences, and former President Ryti was released from prison in 1949, after suffering severe deterioration of his health. The Act on Punishment of Those Responsible for the War  included a provision stating that the general rule on the Finnish President’s right to pardon convicts applied also to those convicted as guilty for the war. (7 § Lagen om bestraffning av de krigsansvariga.)

Post Trial

Members of Parliament have brought up the issue of rescinding the verdicts several times, including in 1992. In 2008, a descendant of Väinö Tanner asked the Finnish Supreme Court to rescind the verdicts, but the Court refused to hear or overturn the convictions, as it specifically lacked jurisdiction over the case. The case was also brought before the European Court of Human Rights, which found that no injury could be argued by the descendant.

In 2010, the Finnish Justice Ministry prepared a report titled Krigsansvarighetsprocessen (Sotasyyllisyysoikeudenkäynti) (Finska justitieministeriets rapport 22/2010), finding that the war trial procedure violated many of the principles of the rule of law, but stated that correcting those injustices would also require many other actions during the same time to be reviewed. Specifically, the Justice Ministry found that the Act on Punishment of Those Responsible for the War violated the prohibition on retroactivity in criminal law and the prohibition on temporary courts. In addition, the principle of presumption of innocence was not upheld during the trials, and the defendants were limited to how they could defend themselves. The Justice Ministry also found that the court was subject to foreign influence in how it should decide the case and several of the judges were clearly biased against the defendants. They also found that, in comparison to other sentences for war guilt crimes of the 1940s, those received by the Finnish leaders were less severe.

If you want to learn about recent legal developments in Finland, I encourage you to subscribe to our Global Legal Monitor articles on Finland.

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