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Human Rights in Latvia
January 1, 2000 - June 30, 2000

Latvian Center for Human Rights and Ethnic Studies
11. Novembra krastmala 35, Rm. 212
Riga LV 1050 Latvia, tel./fax: 371-724-3033
Nils Muiznieks, Angelita Kamenska, Ieva Leimane, Sandra Garsvane

Judicial System and Domestic Safeguards

Severe backlogs in the court system threatened the right to a fair trial in Latvia. As of January 1, 2000 there were 777 criminal cases pending in the Riga District Court as a first instance court. Since the court reviews around 300 cases a year on average, detained individuals have to wait for the review of their cases for up to two years or more. In February the Prison Administration sent a letter informing the Department of Courts of the Ministry of Justice that there were 607 persons in prison who have been awaiting a court sentence since 1997. By early March the Department of Courts of the Ministry of Justice had received 174 complaints concerning the work of judges and half of those were about lengthy delays in reviewing cases in the Riga District Court. Following a request from then Minister of Justice Valdis Birkavs, seven judges from Kurzeme District Court worked for two months in the spring assisting judges from the Riga District Court, thereby reducing the backlog.

In 2000, for the first time since the restoration of independence, the Ministry of Justice budgeted significant funds (Ls 40,000 ~ USD 67,000) for the training of judges. Heretofore, international donors had funded almost all judicial training.

On June 20 the Saeima (parliament) unanimously approved in the first reading draft amendments to the Law on the Constitutional Court to broaden the scope of those eligible to submit applications before the Court. At present eligible applicants include the president, no fewer that 20 parliamentary deputies, the Cabinet of Ministers, the plenum of the High Court, the Council of the State Control, the National Human Rights Office and city councils. Since its creation in mid-1997 the Constitutional Court has received only 44 applications. The draft amendments permit private individuals to submit complaints in cases of violation of their basic rights. However, private individuals will be able to complain only about a legal norm and not about the unconstitutionality of a court verdict or act of public authorities. The Constitutional Court will have the power to determine the constitutionality of the norm in question or to recognise it as not being in force, but the plaintiff will have to turn to a regular court again to seek redress when an unconstitutional norm has been applied. Lower courts will also be able to submit applications in cases when they believe that the legal provision to be applied in the case pending does not comply with a legal norm of higher force.

Torture, Ill-Treatment and Misconduct by Law Enforcement Officials

At the beginning of the year, the Interior Ministry released data on disciplinary measures taken against Ministry staff in 1999. The total figure of those punished was close to 4000 - a 5 percent increase from 1998. In 1999, 60 Interior Ministry personnel were detained or imprisoned for committing criminal acts, of which 28 cases involved accepting bribes. Interior Minister Mareks Seglins has urged harsher penalties for errant police officers, noting that “there were 102 cases in which police staff were driving an automobile under the influence of alcohol, but only 40 lost their jobs: this situation undermines the prestige of the police.”

Police violence continued to evoke concern in the first half of 2000 and a number of victims turned to the LCHRES or the media seeking remedies. On the evening of 12 February, a youth turned to the 21st Riga police office with a request for assistance in retrieving two stolen lats. Instead of receiving assistance, he claims to have been beaten by the police and held until mid-day the following day. Physicians found physical signs of ill treatment corroborating his claims. An investigation was conducted by the State Police, which resulted in the police officers involved receiving a warning. Interior Minister Mareks Seglins objected to the mild punishment and, on his initiative, on 6 March a criminal investigation was launched. During the investigation, three police officers were suspended. At the end of April, the State Police concluded the criminal investigation without filing any charges. The victim has expressed the intention of appealing to the prosecutor's office.

At the beginning of the year, the Liepaja court reviewed a case against two former Liepaja Municipal police inspectors, Aigars Prusis and Janis Fugalis, who have been charged with beating and humiliating three minors. In early summer, the court acquitted the accused former police inspectors, but the prosecutor has filed an appeal with the Kurzeme regional court.

At the beginning of the year, the General Prosecutor's office conducted a review of criminal cases completed in the final quarter of 1999. A review of registered criminal acts in 11 Latvian districts found 32 cases in which the local prosecutor or police official had unjustifiably refused to initiate criminal proceedings. For the period in question, a total of 9845 criminal acts were registered, but authorities decided to not initiate criminal proceedings in 44% of all cases. The Riga court district prosecutor discovered several cases involving the sexual exploitation of children that police had unjustifiably failed to pursue. While declining to specify the number of such cases, chief prosecutor for the district Janis Drobisevskis noted that the cases in question are now being investigated.

Conditions in Prisons and Detention Facilities

The huge number of persons in pre-trial detention continued to evoke concern. In early July the total number of prisoners was 8670, of whom 5051 (58%) were convicted while 3619 (42%) were awaiting trial. The open prison of Vecumnieki continued to be plagued by problems of severe overcrowding. The number of prisoners infected with HIV increased to 136. At mid-year, prisoners with HIV accounted for about 1/3 of all those infected with HIV in Latvia.

Protection of Minorities

By the end of June, the government had not yet allocated any funding to implement the integration programme, a minority policy framework that had been drafted by experts and accepted by the Cabinet at the end of 1999. The government was also unable to reach a decision regarding the institution responsible for implementing the program, as some ministers urged the task to be entrusted to the Ministry of Education, while others claimed that the Ministry of Justice was the logical choice. While the national government dithered, several municipal governments moved forward with their own integration programmes. Furthest along was the city of Ventspils, which adopted an integration programme and created a non-citizen's advisory council in April.

On 11 May the Saeima rejected a draft bill to ratify the Council of Europe's Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities, which Latvia signed in 1995. Only 15 deputies voted for ratification, 21 were against and 52 abstained. While deputies mentioned a number of technical obstacles (e.g. the quality of the translation of the convention, the absence of a minority definition), the real obstacle is the incompatibility of a number of legislative norms, particularly in the realm of language policy. Turkey and Latvia are the last remaining EU-candidate countries that have not ratified the Framework Convention.

Citizenship

On 30 March the Saeima adopted progressive amendments to the law “On the Status of Those Citizens on the Former USSR Who are Not Citizens of Latvia or Any Other State” which governs the legal status of Latvia's stateless “non-citizens” who number close to 600,000 or 25% of the population. The amendments explicitly state that non-citizens enjoy all human rights enshrined in the Constitution and that they have the right “to preserve their native language, culture and traditions within the framework of national cultural autonomy.” While the practical impact of the law is likely to be minimal for the time being, the move weakens the position of those who wish to limit the application of minority rights to citizens alone.

Intolerance, Xenophobia, Racial Discrimination and Hate Speech

On 29 May the Riga regional court handed down a verdict in the trial of 9 members of a neo-Nazi group called Perkonkrusts (Thundercross). They were found guilty of attempting to blow up the Victory Monument on three occasions, blowing up a hot water main, assault and other crimes. Two members of the group received three-year prison sentences and three others were released in the courtroom, as they had already served the 1 to 2 ½ years to which the court sentenced them. Four other members who had not been in detention, including the group's elderly ideologue Vilis Linins and two minors, were given suspended sentences. The founder and head of the group, Juris Recs, faces a separate trial, as he had successfully evaded the authorities until early May, when he was detained.

The court also imposed a considerable civil penalty, requiring the defendants to pay the Riga City Council Ls 21 000 (~USD 35,000) for the cost of repairing the monument and close to Ls 3000 (~USD 5000) to the company Riga Heat for the damaged hot water main. Throughout the investigation and trial, the right-wing weekly Latvietis Latvija (A Latvian in Latvia) published appeals to donate money to help Perkonkrusts members, whom the paper called “patriots of the Latvian people” and “political dissidents.” The fringe paper, which is sold freely in kiosks throughout the capital, regularly features racist and anti-Semitic articles. Interestingly, as of January, new issues of the paper no longer appear on the group's home page (www.home.parks.lv/latvietis), which has a link to the Holocaust denial site created by Ernst Zundel in the United States.

In January the “Latvian Regional Organization of Russian National Unity,” a neo-Nazi group modelled on a similar group in Russia, published the first issue of a new underground newsletter entitled Za Russky Poryadok (For a Russian Order). The newsletter reprints a number of articles from Russia, but also contains a number of new pieces. For example, in a piece deriding the sympathy of some Latvians for the Chechen cause and rumours of volunteer mercenaries, an anonymous author suggests “if someone wants to battle with Russians, there is no need to go so far. WE ARE ALREADY HERE!” In an article entitled “To Whom Do the Baltics Belong” the author asserts that in 1940 “our fathers once again returned here and only took back what has always belonged to Russia by right”. Other articles refer to the influence of “Zionist capital” on the Latvian media. On 12 May Evgeny Osipov, the leader of the organisation, was fined Ls 100 (~USD 166) by the Liepaja court for breaking regulations governing the registration of social organisations.

On 14 April the authorities permitted official registration of the social organisation “Victory Society” (in Russian - Obshchestvo pobedy, in Latvian – Sabiedriba uzvara). Behind the innocuous statutes and name lie the National Bolsheviks, a self-styled “revolutionary Russian nationalistic party” modelled on a similar party in Russia. After registration, the group began to issue a newspaper Tribunal, in which it invited to its ranks “all who want to make a revolution with their own hands… National-bolsheviks, anarchists, Che Guevarists, skinheads, punks. We guarantee an interesting life and a beautiful death.” On 28 June Riga's Vidzeme district court issued a warning to the publishers of Tribunal for violating regulations about including certain technical information about themselves in the newspaper.

On 4 June the main television news program “Panorama” aired a news story about a woman who had swindled jewels and a substantial sum of money from a young girl, who then attempted to commit suicide. The perpetrator was alleged to have been of Roma origin. The journalist concluded the piece by drawing the “lesson” that “it is best not to look in the eyes of Roma” as they have hypnotic powers. Further, a police officer appealed to all Roma in Latvia to assist in recovering the jewels. The Roma National Cultural Society and Parliamentary Commission on Human Rights and Social Affairs protested against the program as contributing to negative stereotypes against Roma. The head of the news division at Latvian TV apologised to Roma for the broadcast and expressed the intention of devoting some special programs reflecting Roma culture and traditions.

A sociological survey commissioned by the National Human Rights Office in January sheds interesting light on public perceptions of human rights violations and discrimination. A total of 24% of all respondents (18% of all Latvians, 31% of all non-Latvians) claimed to have experienced discrimination in the last three years. The two most commonly mentioned realms were labour relations and social services (respectively 47% and 24% of all who claimed discrimination). When asked for the reasons for the violation of their rights, respondents mentioned ethnicity and language most frequently (respectively 28% and 24% of all who claimed discrimination). Ethnicity was most frequently mentioned by non-citizens (43%) and non-Latvians (40%). Similarly, language was most frequently mentioned by non-citizens (37%) and non-Latvians (36%) as well.

Protection of Refugees and Asylum Seekers

For the first time, a resident of Latvia who had received refugee status in a State party to the 1951 UN Convention attempted to return to Latvia to resume his residence. Mr. Andrejs Vesnins, a resident of Latvia, had received refugee status in Russia on 4 January 1995. In July 1999, Mr. Vesnins returned to Latvia with a visa obtained at the Latvian Consulate in Pskov and in August attempted to obtain a residency permit. The Citizenship and Migration Affairs Board refused his request, indicating that “upon the end of his visa period A. Vesnins must leave Latvia” and arrive at the Citizenship and Migration Affairs Board to annul his Population Register stamp in his passport (the basis for annulment: “emigrated”). In September Mr. Vesnins received a departure order, but on 4 October submitted a request to the Refugee Affairs Centre. The Centre refused his request for refugee status as “manifestly unfounded,” declaring its decision final and not subject to appeal. On 13 October Mr. Vesnins was detained and placed in the Gaizina St. Illegal Immigrant Temporary Detention Centre, where he remained at the end of June 2000.

On 18 April a first instance court reviewed Mr. Vesnins complaint about the Citizenship and Migration Affairs Board and requested that the departure order be rescinded and his Population Register stamp be renewed. The court rejected the complaint, noting that the plaintiff's return to Latvia is regulated by Latvian legislation, not the UN conventions and international law invoked by the plaintiff. It should be recalled, however, that Latvia ratified the 1951 UN Convention and the 1967 protocol on refugee status on 19 June 1997. The plaintiff has appealed to the Riga regional court.

War Crimes and Crimes Against Humanity

In a controversial case, the Latvian High Court decided in late April to release from custody Vasily Kononov, a former “Red Partisan” leader accused of war crimes during World War II, and referred the case back to prosecutors for supplementary investigation. Kononov had been accused of participating in an attack on Mazie Bati village in which nine people, including a pregnant woman, were killed in 1944. In January a lower court found Kononov guilty and sentenced him to six years in prison. Soviet authorities had decorated Kononov for his actions and throughout the legal proceedings, Russia championed his cause, accusing Latvian authorities of punishing him for being an anti-fascist. The testimony of both Kononov and witnesses had been filled with contradictions, and questions arose about whether all the victims could be considered non-combatants. In justifying its decision, the High Court pointed to a number of procedural violations in the pre-trial phase and in the first instance trial.

In the first half of 2000, the government took a number of steps towards bringing to justice alleged World War II Nazi war criminals as well. On February 16 and 17 the Latvian government hosted a meeting of war crimes investigators from Australia, Canada, Britain, Germany, Israel and the United States to compare evidence against Konrads Kalejs, an 86-year-old citizen of Australia who was a commanding officer with the notorious Arajs Kommando in Nazi-occupied Latvia. In March the general prosecutor's office initiated criminal investigations against both Kalejs and Karlis Ozols, another member of the Arajs Kommando now residing in Australia. In the early summer, two additional developments signalled possible progress in the cases. Russia expressed willingness to share evidence on Kalejs in its archives with Latvian officials. Moreover, by the end of June, Latvia and Australia were finalising the terms of an extradition treaty.

Women's Rights

In February, for the first time in Latvian legal history, a female employee won a court case against an employer for gender discrimination. However, on May 19, the employer successfully appealed the decision of the Rezekne court in the Latgale regional court. The facts of the case are as follows. Dagmara Abramova, an employee of a printing company called Latgales Druka, had her labour contract amended in 1999. As a result, she was prohibited from fulfilling seven duties that she had been able to fulfil previously and her wage was five times smaller than that of her male colleagues. The first instance court in Rezekne recognised the labour contract as invalid and required the employer to pay 2791 Lats (USD 4,715) compensation for wages not received for 12 months. In its verdict, the court referred to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, which Latvia has ratified. After the Latgale district court overruled the initial decision, the plaintiff expressed the intention of appealing to the High Court and, if necessary, to the European Court of Human Rights.

On May 19, 2000 the parliament adopted several amendments to the Criminal Code that finally criminalise trafficking in human beings in connection with sexual exploitation. Article 165.2 defines trafficking/sending to a different country as any activity that facilitates legal or illegal departure from the country or entry into the country, transit or stay in a foreign country. The amendments came into force on June 1. Article 165.1 foresees deprivation of liberty for up to fours years in cases of sending of a person with his/her agreement to a foreign country for the purpose of sexual exploitation. If the same activities are committed for the purpose of commercial sexual exploitation, the punishment may be up to ten years of imprisonment, with possible confiscation of property. If these activities are committed by an organised group or if committed against a minor, the punishment may be for a term from eight to fifteen years of imprisonment with confiscation of property.

A new draft Labour Law was approved by the Cabinet of Ministers in early March and has been submitted to the Parliament. It includes progressive new norms related to equal access to work. According to the draft law, labour contracts will be prohibited from envisaging differential treatment on the basis of sex, marital or family status (Art.22). Article 26 provides for specific cases where the principle shall be taken into account – access to employment, promotion, pay and vocational training. Article 29 states that “Employers' advertisements on job vacancies shall not be directed towards one or the other sex, except for cases when the employee's sex is an objective and justifiable precondition for fulfilment of one's professional duties.” The draft law includes provisions governing job interviews and prohibits questions not related to the professional requirements of the given job or questions that are directly or indirectly discriminatory (e.g. regarding pregnancy, family and marital status). If the employer has violated the principle of equal treatment, the potential employee can claim compensation equalling three months salary. Article 60 states that “The employer is obliged to provide equal pay for men and women for the same work or work of equal value.” The draft law also introduces a new concept – shifting the burden of proof to the employer in cases of discrimination based on sex.

On 15 May 2000 the Cabinet of Ministers adopted a new draft law on sexual and reproductive health. The draft law delineates two types of abortions: a “medical abortion” performed due to medical and social indications and an abortion performed as a result of a woman's choice. The draft law also includes regulations for artificial fertilisation. The current version of the draft law defines a heterosexual couple or a woman as the subject of artificial fertilisation, though another article says that “potential parents are a heterosexual couple.” Thus, it is still unclear whether the rights of lesbians and single women will be respected.

Rights of the Child

At the beginning of the year, the Cabinet of Ministers drafted new regulations simplifying the procedure for adoption. Previously, foreign adoption had been allowed only if the child were ill or if two local adopters had declined the child. When approved, the new regulations would give foreigners equal status to local adopters on a first-come first-serve basis. The draft regulations also mandate considering the child's views of potential adoptive parents and require a waiting period of six days before a mother can give up her newborn child.

On 9 March the Saeima amended the Children's Rights Protection Law, providing that until the new adoption regulations enter into force, “a child may be adopted abroad if that country is bound by an international convention envisaging the protection of children's rights and cooperation in inter-state adoption, or if Latvia has signed a bilateral treaty with the country on legal cooperation in the field of adoption.” On 16 March the Saeima ratified the European Convention on the Adoption of Children.

In April, with the entry into force of amendments to the Children's Rights Protection Law, a new procedure governing children's travel across national borders was introduced. In order to leave the country, children were required to possess a notarised authorisation from their parents or guardians. If one parent was not accessible, the authorisation had to be obtained from an Orphan's Court. However, at the frontier, authorisations were also demanded of children whose parents had divorced or one of whose parents was either dead or unknown. These demands restricted the child's freedom of movement and created severe problems at frontier crossings until the new procedure was suspended in mid-May.

Rights of the Mentally Ill

The first litigation concerning a patient's rights in psychiatry was initiated at the beginning of the year. The complaint is about a patient's access to his medical record and the right to information about the diagnosis and treatment, which the plaintiff has tried to obtain for 20 years. In 1994 the plaintiff's employer asked several hospitals and the State Psychiatry Centre for documentation regarding the employee's mental health, but was refused. With the assistance of the Legal Clinic at the University of Latvia, a complaint was filed in March 2000 against the Ministry of Welfare, as there were four hospitals involved. The plaintiff has invoked both the “Law on Medical Treatment” and the “Law on Access to Information.” Some psychiatrists have welcomed the litigation, as it should help clarify issues regarding the rights of mentally ill patients. Moreover, the outcome could influence the shape of new draft legislation on psychiatric assistance.


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