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Human Rights in Latvia in 1999

Prepared by Nils Muiznieks, Angelita Kamenska,
Ieva Leimane, Sandra Garsvane
Latvian Center for Human Rights and Ethnic Studies

Preface

The Latvian Center for Human Rights and Ethnic Studies (LCHRES) prepared and published this report on Human Rights in Latvia in 1999 with funding from the Open Society Institute (Budapest). While we are grateful for this and other support given to the LCHRES in 1999, responsibility for the views expressed is solely ours. In November 1999, the LCHRES became a full member of the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights (IHF) and some of the material below will also appear in abridged form in the IHF Annual Report. However, as we wanted to reach a broader audience in Latvia and the region, for the second year in a row we decided to publish this lengthier overview in three languages: English, Latvian and Russian.

Throughout 1999, we attempted to monitor to whom we distributed the 1000 copies of our Report. The readership breakdown was as follows: 225 copies to NGO activists, 180 copies to domestic and foreign journalists, 145 to international organisations and foreign embassies in Latvia, 130 copies to state officials in Latvia (including 30 parliamentary deputies), 75 copies to libraries and academic institutions, and the remainder to the general public. Many people contacted us by e-mail and requested copies or pulled it off the world wide web from the Minority Electronic Resources home page under the country information for Latvia (www.riga.lv/minelres/count/latvia.htm).

We do not claim to provide a full picture of human rights issues in Latvia in 1999. The material below reflects our specific areas of expertise and what in our view are the most topical issues in Latvia. Although the report contains a brief section on children's rights, space constraints and our limited human resources did not allow us to delve into two controversies that rocked Latvia in 1999, the first regarding foreign adoption of Latvian-born children, the second involving pedofilia. Both scandals became highly politicised, with politicians and activists engaging in such mud-slinging and innuendo that the welfare of children was often forgotten. However, we highly recommend a recent UNICEF report entitled Children and Families in Latvia, for which LCHRES deputy director Angelita Kamenska contributed a chapter on “Children in Places of Detention.”

In this report, we also do not analyse the housing crisis - an urgent social problem that affects the human rights of many of Latvia's most vulnerable residents. The National Human Rights Office and a number of NGOs have been inundated with complaints and requests for help from people who have been threatened with eviction or are already homeless because of their inability to pay rising rents and utility costs. The response of the government and the municipalities has been woefully inadequate. Good first steps towards progress in this realm would be public policy research, increased government housing assistance to the most needy, and elimination of an old Soviet control mechanism - the residential registry (propiska) system - that distorts the housing market.

We did not insert footnotes throughout the Report, as this would have been too cumbersome. Occasionally, we refer to the source in the text. However, we used a wide variety of source materials in preparing this Report, including media reports and information provided by individuals, other NGOs and international organisations working in Latvia. We also relied on official data and documents from the Ministry of Justice Statistical Department, the Ministry of Interior Department of Correctional Facilities, the Naturalisation Board, the National Human Rights Office, the Refugee Affairs Centre, the Ministry of Welfare Social Assistance Foundation.

Nils Muižnieks
Director, Latvian Center for Human Rights and Ethnic Studies

Introduction

In Latvia the primary human rights concerns in 1999 were the lengthy pre-trial detention of minors, encroachments on freedom of expression, as well as the government's failure to allocate sufficient funding to ensure smooth implementation of social integration policy, thereby threatening recent progress in the realm of minority rights. On the positive side, 1999 saw the abolition of the death penalty, the opening of a new involuntary commitment facility for mental patients who have committed serious crimes and a significant increase in the naturalisation rate of Latvia's large population of stateless “non-citizens”.

Freedom of Expression and the Media

In a case with far-reaching implications for freedom of expression, former Minister of Economics Laimonis Strujevics sued the daily newspaper Diena (The Day) for defamation in 1999. At issue are a series of seven editorials written in 1998 by commentator Aivars Ozolins. Ozolins expressed the opinion that Strujevics had acted in the interest of several Ventspils-based oil transit companies to the detriment of the state budget. The Riga Zemgale district court ruled on 26 October 1999 in favour of Strujevics and ordered Diena to rescind parts of its editorials and to pay Strujevics 7000 lats (USD 12 000) in damages. Diena has appealed the case, which could have a chilling effect on journalistic criticism of politicians.

In another controversial case, on 12 March 1999 Tatyana Chaladze, former editor of the now-defunct newspaper Baltiskoe Vremya, was arrested for contempt of court as she entered Latvia at the Meitene border crossing point. Chaladze, who has not lived in Latvia for several years, had been sued for defamation in 1992 by former Latvian Communist Party leader Alfreds Rubiks and ignored several summons to court. At issue was an article in a 1992 edition of Baltiskoe Vremya which suggested that Communist Party funds had been stolen and deposited in a Swiss bank. On 15 April 1999 the Riga Central district court acquitted Chaladze and she was released from custody. This and the Strujevics vs. Diena case both reflected a serious problem plaguing the judicial system: the inability of judges to apply the principle of proportionality.

The new Criminal Code that went into effect on 1 April 1999 foresees very severe penalties for defamation. For example, Article 158 holds that “The punishment for impugning someone's honour or defamation in the mass media is deprivation of liberty for a period up to one year or detention, or community service or a monetary fine up to 30 minimal monthly wages.” This is in stark contradiction to the 1999 Report of the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Opinion and Expression, Article 28 paragraph H of which notes in regard to defamation that “penal sanctions, in particular imprisonment, should never be applied.”

In August the Cabinet of Ministers adopted implementing regulations for the 1998 Law on Access to Information laying out how state institutions must release information at their disposal. Rather than facilitating access to information, the regulations further restrict such access by providing additional justifications for not releasing information: if the author is another institution or if the information has already been published.

Judicial System and Domestic Safeguards

On 1 April 1999 a contradictory new Criminal Code entered into force. On the positive side, new features include the possibility of replacing criminal liability with a process of victim-offender conciliation, the possibility of a shortened court procedure in the event of an admission of guilt, and the more frequent availability of alternative punishments, including community service, fines, etc. However, the Code also foresees very harsh penalties, which is especially troubling in cases that affect freedom of expression and children (see below).

A new Law on Civil Procedure entered into force on 1 March 1999. Article 9 of the old Civil Procedure Code permitted the use of minority languages in court proceedings and documentation “if both sides, their representatives and the prosecutor agree,” as well as guaranteed the services of a translator in the case. While Article 13 of the new law continues to guarantee the services of a translator, it also requires any documentation not in Latvian to be submitted with a certified translation. While this law conforms to international standards, its impact will be to make civil trials less accessible to many minorities. A similar provision is included in the new State Language Law adopted on 9 December 1999, Article 10 of which stipulates that, except in emergencies, state and municipal agencies and courts receive documents only in the state language or with a certified translation into Latvian. This law, which enters into force on 1 September 2000, will render state bodies and public services less accessible to minorities (see below).

In 1999 the National Human Rights Office (NHRO), a government ombudsman-like body, did not fully recover from a management and political crisis that had paralysed it over the second half of 1998. A majority of the parliament voted on 29 April 1999 not to remove director Olafs Bruvers from office. Several NHRO employees who had been in positions of conflict of interest left the staff in early 1999. In mid-March 1999 the NHRO formed an advisory council consisting of representatives from human rights NGOs, international organisations working in Latvia and the Supreme Court. However, despite regular meetings, at the end of the year the advisory council was still struggling to define its role (or have it defined by the NHRO). Symptomatic of its problems has been its inability to elect a chairperson. By year's end the NHRO had yet to regain the public trust and political clout it had previously enjoyed, a task that will be complicated by a significant decrease in funding and ensuing staff cuts and suspended projects.

Torture, Ill-Treatment and Misconduct by Law Enforcement Officials

A delegation of the Council of Europe Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CPT) visited Latvia from 24 January to 3 February 1999. The Convention setting up the Committee entered into force for Latvia on 1 June 1998. The delegation inspected a number of police stations, prisons, and mental hospitals and has drafted a report on its findings. It is to be hoped that the Latvian government will make the report public in 2000.

The first half of 1999 witnessed an increase in the frequency with which police used firearms against civilians, sometimes with lethal consequences. In a 13 March incident, an Ogre traffic police officer shot in the head and killed a 20-year-old who had exceeded the speed limit and fled from the police. The following day in Riga, a police officer shot and killed a youth holding a toy pistol after he refused to heed a demand to throw it down. On 20 March a Riga traffic police officer seriously wounded a driver in the head after the person failed to heed the officer's command.

On 27 March Dairis Filipovs, an officer of the security police in Jelgava, while under the influence of alcohol shot and killed two persons and wounded three others. In this case, the officer was found guilty and given a twenty-year prison sentence. After an internal investigation, five officials were punished: the chief of the security police received a reprimand, the direct superior of the accused was demoted, two persons received a warning about their unfitness for duty, and another received a reprimand.

Conditions in Prisons and Detention Facilities

In 1999 the prison population declined slightly from the previous year to 8815 or 354 prisoners per 100,000 inhabitants. Despite this positive trend, a rise in the share of pre-trial prisoners (41.3%) led to significant overcrowding in pre-trial detention prisons like the Central Prison (129%) and Liepaja Prison (124%). In view of the lengthy period of time some individuals spend in pre-trial detention (up to 2-3 years), the complete absence of any purposeful activity and harsh restrictions on contacts with the outside world are unjustifiable. While the new Criminal Code allows prisoners sentenced to a term up to two years to be transferred to open prisons, implementation of this provision led to serious overcrowding in the Vecumnieki Prison (200%) and Olaine Prison (158%).

The widespread incidence of tuberculosis in prisons continued to remain a serious concern, especially the high share of patients with multi-drug resistant TB. In 1999 the number of ill prisoners declined from 536 to 361. It is unclear whether this is due to the introduction of the DOTS (Directly observed therapy, short-course) programme or the release of ill prisoners. In 1999 the number of HIV positive prisoners increased to almost 100 cases. Although a number of international instruments call for ensuring confidentiality about the identity of AIDS patients, the transport by convoy of prisoners for medical examinations to the State Infectious Disease AIDS ward threatens this confidentiality.

As of 1 January 2000 the prison system will be transferred from the Interior Ministry to the Ministry of Justice. While an inter-ministerial work group to oversee the transfer was created as early as May 1998, by the end of 1999 a number of problems remained unresolved. For example, soldiers continue to guard 7 of 15 prisons.

Right to Privacy

A number of cases in which media outlets have violated the right to privacy came to light in 1999. For example, after the 14 December 1999 issue of the Cesis region newspaper Druva described incidents of vandalism in the area, it also published the names and home addresses of those who had been found guilty of the crimes. For several years, the Ogre city newspaper Ogres vestis, for its part, has published the names, home addresses and the amount city residents owe in back rent. Such action violates the Law “On the Press and Other Means of Mass Information” and Latvia's Code of Journalistic Ethics, as well as the right to privacy as enshrined in Article 12 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 17 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

Freedom of Religion (and Conscientious Objection)

Legislation currently in force in Latvia does not permit conscientious objection or alternative military service. According to the Law on Obligatory Military Service in force until December 1999, ordained clergymen from confessions represented in the military chaplain's service are exempt from military service. However, the Jehovah's Witnesses are not represented in this body. In March and April 1999 Vladimirs Gamajunovs and Romans Nemiro submitted a request to a Riga court to rescind a decision of the Defence Ministry's Military Recruitment Commission regarding their conscription into the Latvian armed forces. Both individuals are Jehovah's Witnesses and the former is a clergyman. Both individuals invoked Article 99 of the Constitution, which guarantees freedom of thought, conscience and religion and Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights. In his 6 May 1999 reply to the Jehovah's Witnesses Riga Congregation, Defence Minister Girts Kristovskis acknowledged that “One could agree that in the current situation not conscripting Jehovah's Witnesses into obligatory military service (which is not possible under existing laws) would not cause any fundamental losses to Latvia's army and alternative solutions in legislation should be permitted.”

On 25 August 1999 the Riga Vidzeme district court rejected both complaints against the Military Recruitment Commission and on 13 September 1999 both plaintiffs appealed, though at the end of 1999 a hearing date had not yet been set. At the end of 1999, three similar cases were brought before the same court. Two of the five cases involve ordained clergymen and are likely to be withdrawn, as on 20 December 1999 the parliament passed amendments to the Law on Obligatory Military Service exempting clergymen in confessions registered at the Ministry of Justice or persons studying in religious seminaries. However, the parliament rejected a draft amendment permitting conscientious objection proposed by the Commission on Human Rights and Social Affairs.

Protection of Minorities

The government engaged in a wide-ranging dialogue with minorities in the spring after it launched a draft “Framework Document for a National Programme on the Integration of Society” on 10 March 1999. The document lays out the goals and means of minority policy on topics such as education, language, citizenship, etc. After the public debate, revisions and some delays, the Cabinet of Ministers finally approved the document in mid-December, thereby enshrining integration as state policy and laying the groundwork for the creation of a multi-year government integration programme with state budget funds. However, the parliament did not allocate any funds in the 2000 budget for continuing work on integration policy.

The parliament adopted a new State Language Law on 9 December 1999 that will enter into force on 1 September 2000. In July the president had vetoed an initial version of the law and sent it back to parliament for revision, claiming that it violated international norms governing freedom of expression and the sanctity of private life. OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities Max van der Stoel has judged the 9 December version of the law to be “essentially in conformity with Latvia's international obligations and commitments.” However, the law leaves a large margin of legal uncertainty, as a number of the most important provisions are left for decision by the executive branch. For example, the Cabinet of Ministers will decide the level of Latvian language proficiency required of state officials and private individuals whose work affects legitimate public interests (Article 6), which public events organised by non-state agencies may be required to provide translation into Latvian (article 11), and which public information can be presented in a foreign language alongside Latvian (article 21).

As noted above, the law also stipulates that government bodies will receive documents only in the state language or with a notarised translation into Latvian. Heretofore, documents could be submitted in Russian, German and English as well. This new provision will not only generate hardship for many minorities, but also place an additional hurdle to accession to the Council of Europe's Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities, which Latvia signed in 1995, but has yet to ratify. A further barrier to ratification will be article 18 of the law, which calls for place names to be used only in the state language.

At the same time, the National Programme for Latvian Language Training (NPLLT) continued to make progress in assisting minorities to learn Latvian, eliciting their participation, and engaging them in a process of dialogue. In the summer, the NPLLT alone and in cooperation with the Soros Foundation – Latvia organised 26 summer language and integration camps. Moreover, in 1999 the NPLLT continued to train minority professionals whose career opportunities are threatened by poor Latvian skills, including minority school teachers, medical professionals, Interior Ministry staff (police, fire fighters, prison guards), railway workers, as well as various marginalised groups, such as disabled persons. In 1999 the NPLLT worked closely with the media, creating radio programmes and video films.

In implementing the 1998 Law on Education, the Ministry of Education and Science developed four bilingual models in 1999 and offered them to schools with minority languages as the basic language of instruction. Schools were to implement the model of their choice by September 1999. However, by year's end, it became apparent that full implementation of the Law on Education would be difficult in the time period foreseen due to a shortage of human and material resources.

Citizenship

Amendments to the Law on Citizenship approved in a referendum on 3 October 1998 came into force in 1999, leading to a large jump in the naturalisation rate of Latvia's approximately 600,000 stateless “non-citizens”. On 2 February 1999 the Cabinet of Ministers adopted implementing regulations regarding the procedure for registering stateless children as citizens of Latvia and the testing procedure for physically disabled persons. The abolition of the age timetable or “window system,” which had prevented many qualified applicants from naturalising, led to an increase in applications to a monthly average of more than 1500 at year's end. In 1999 12,429 persons received citizenship by naturalisation, which is more than the combined total of the previous four years. In order to do away with the long queues that had formed in Riga and to cut down the time lag between the moment of application and the receipt of citizenship, in April the government allocated additional funding to expand the staff of the Naturalisation Board, the bureaucracy which administers the law. However, at year's end, the parliament failed to allocate the requisite funds to the Naturalisation Board in the 2000 budget. Unless budget amendments are adopted, staff will have to be cut in early 2000.

By year's end more than 73,000 non-citizens had not changed their Soviet passports for non-citizen passports and risked remaining without valid identity documents. In a move welcomed by human rights defenders, at the end of the year the government extended the deadline for the expiration of the validity of USSR passports from 31 December 1999 to 31 March 2000.

On 18 February 1999 the Saeima adopted a law “On the Status of a Stateless Person in Latvia.” The law regulates the status of several dozen people who cannot qualify for refugee status or acquire a non-citizen's passport under the 1995 law “On the Status of Those Citizens of the Former USSR Who are Not Citizens of Latvia or Any Other State.” On 24 August 1999 the Cabinet adopted implementing regulations and since then, according to information provided by the Department of Citizenship and Migration Affairs, six persons have officially been recognised as stateless.

Intolerance, Xenophobia, Racial Discrimination and Hate Speech

The activities and published statements of extremist groups and individuals continued to evoke concern in 1999, as they sometimes included veiled appeals to violent action. Issue 4 of the bi-weekly newspaper “A Latvian in Latvia” (Latvietis Latvija) contained an article in which the author bemoaned the humiliation experienced by Latvians who have to work for companies owned by Russians. He asserted that “the solution is not to befriend or coddle up to these enemies, but to engage in a struggle against them.” Further, the same author noted that “Not because of a pretty life do youth in Germany beat Turks, in the Czech Republic and Poland – Gypsies, and everywhere, of course – blacks and Asians. They are even more harmful and unpleasant than Russians. Unfortunately, because of the harmful policies of the government they will soon be here in Latvia as well.” Issue 21 contained an article urging the military to “raise up their weapons” and act, “to drive out with fists the vanderstoels (NB: Max van der Stoel: OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities) who have come to destroy our people and land.” That same issue contained an article stating that “the large number of mentally disabled seriously threatens the gene pool of the Latvian nation. For this reason we cannot allow the mentally ill to have children.”

The statements of some Russian-oriented extremists have also continued to evoke concern. At the end of May three youths were briefly detained for writing the following slogan in enormous letters on a Riga wall: “Killing a Latvian is the same thing as planting a tree. Let's make Latvia greener!” The unofficial organisation “Russian National Unity” (followers of Barkashov) put out one issue of a newsletter called “Russian attack” (Russkaya ataka) in January in which it called itself an organisation of “Russian nationalists,” an “active, decisive, uncompromising organisation with military discipline” one of whose goals is “putting in their place the uppity 'younger brothers' in the former national territories.” Issue No. 10 of the newsletter of the unofficial National Bolshevik Party “The General Line” (General'naya liniya) urged something more than moral support for the Serbs during the Balkan War: “In order to help the Serbs it is not necessary to go to Yugoslavia…Vietnam on every corner. Yugoslavia on every corner.” Adjacent to these slogans was a picture of a man holding a Molotov cocktail. Members of both Russian National Unity and the National Bolshevik Party have on numerous occasions been detained briefly and received fines for disturbing the peace, violating regulations on holding protests, resisting arrest, etc.

In a bizarre anti-Semitic incident, the editor of the mainstream daily “Independent Morning Newspaper” (Neatkariga Rita Avize) Juris Laksovs in a brief article in the 8 April edition called the American Academy of Motion Pictures “a bunch of crazy kikes who have pissed all over themselves”. The following day an unrepentant Laksovs resigned from his post.

In an incident at a café-bar in the town of Talsi on 16 July 1999, home guard Imants B. denied entry to Mr. C, a youth of Roma origin. According to Mr. C, Imants B. stated in the presence of witnesses that the owner had ordered no Roma to be allowed entry, though Imants B. subsequently denied this and claimed that Mr. C was not let in because he “looked suspicious”. The incident made national news and the café owner made a public apology for the “misunderstanding”. After a request by the National Human Rights Office (NHRO), the Home Guard's G-2 Administration conducted an investigation and absolved Imants B. of all wrongdoing. In a letter to the NHRO, Home Guard headquarters provided a bizarre excuse: “As the mother of Mr. B. is a Russian and one of his father's parents is Roma, it is doubtful that any discrimination on the basis of ethnic origin could have taken place on the part of Imants B. (…) While guarding Café K.A.I. on 16 July 1999, 41st Home Guard Battalion reserve officer Mr. B. acted according to the café's internal regulations… the café's internal regulations were worked out by the owner, who would then also bear responsibility for conflicts based upon them.”

In 1999 Latvia submitted its combined initial, second and third periodic reports under the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. After reviewing these reports in August, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination issued its concluding observations (CERD/C/55/Misc. 39/Rev. 4). The Committee expressed concern about the fact that no case of dissemination of ethnic hatred had been brought to justice, the slow rate of naturalisation, the maintenance of the ethnicity entry in passports, and the difficulties experienced by some non-citizens without valid passports.

Protection of Asylum Seekers and Refugees

At the beginning of 1999 the new Refugee Reception Centre at Mucenieki was officially opened and by the end of the year housed 6 asylum seekers and 5 refugees. As of the end of 1999, only a total of 6 people had officially been granted refugee status in Latvia. Unfortunately, in the two years since Latvia began to review applications for asylum, the government has not created any real mechanisms for the integration of refugees into Latvian society. The Mucenieki facility is not designed for permanent residence, but the refugees face difficulties in obtaining a residency registration permit (the old Soviet propiska) to live elsewhere, which makes it impossible for them to work legally. The Ministry of Environmental Protection and Regional Development has offered primarily apartments far from Riga or with utility debts that the new inhabitants would have to pay. Moreover, according to current legislation, it is impossible for refugees to acquire Latvian citizenship through naturalisation.

In 1999 Latvia participated in the “PHARE Horizontal Programme on Justice and Home Affairs, Joint Support Programme on the Application of the EU Acquis on Asylum and Related Standards and Practices in the Associated Countries of Central Europe and the Baltics.” The ten-country project, which aims to harmonise asylum law, has led to the preparation of draft legislative amendments in Latvia introducing so-called “B” or subsidiary forms of protection and accelerated procedures, as well as doing away with the notion of a safe country of origin and safe third country.

In April the Latvian government allocated US$ 100,000 in humanitarian assistance to the victims of the Balkan War. At the recommendation of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, these funds were used to purchase and send 15,000 blankets to Kosovo refugee camps. Moreover, a group of 7 field medical personnel from the Ministry of Defence were sent to Albania.

Conditions in the Gaizina Street detention centre for illegal immigrants continued to evoke concern, as the 35 inhabitants carried out a hunger strike in April 1999. A number of the inhabitants have been held in the facility for more than one year. In the 23 April edition of the newspaper Rigas Balss, Interior Ministry spokesman Normunds Belskis stated that “the Minister admits that the living conditions in these places [the Gaizina St. facility and the Olaine facility] do not meet European standards, but budget limitations prevent these problems from being resolved in a week's or a month's time.”

The Death Penalty

On 15 April 1999, with 64 votes “for”, 14 “against” the Saeima (parliament) voted to abolish the death penalty by ratifying Protocol 6 of the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. Protocol 6 entered into force in Latvia on 1 June 1999. With this move, Latvia finally fulfilled a commitment it made upon gaining entry into the Council of Europe in 1995. Now, parliament must amend the Criminal Code to bring national legislation into line with Protocol 6.

Women's Rights

On 1 January 1999 the Ministry of Welfare appointed an official responsible for gender equality issues. By the end of 1999, this official had coordinated several research projects, but the office's work had yet to gain public attention.

On 17 June Vaira Vike-Freiberga was elected president of Latvia by a majority of parliamentary deputies. Vike-Freiberga, a former citizen of Canada who returned to Latvia only in 1998, became Latvia's first woman head of state and the first woman president in Eastern Europe.

In October the Crisis centre “Skalbes” organised a week-long telephone campaign during which women who had suffered domestic violence could call in for free and receive advice. During the campaign 230 women or an average of 25-30 per day sought assistance. 72% of the callers said they were victims of violence and 25% said they had been threatened. The heightened attention of the media during the phone-in campaign finally brought the issue of violence against women into the public light.

Rights of the Child

On 11 August and 29 September Latvia signed respectively the European Convention on Adoption of Children and the European Convention on Recognition of Decisions and Enforcement of Decisions Concerning Custody of Children and Restoration of Custody of Children. Ratification and implementation of these instruments could facilitate a restoration of public confidence in the overseas adoption of children from Latvia.

In May 1999 there were 43 minors in detention facilities who had already been incarcerated for more than a year. At the end of 1999 one youth born in 1982 who was imprisoned in June 1996 continued to be held in prison, where he has already spent three-and-a-half years. Another minor has been held in detention since December 1996. This is in stark violation of Article 37, Part b. of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which states that “the arrest, detention or imprisonment of a child shall be used only as a measure of last resort and for the shortest appropriate period of time.” This problem may be compounded by the provisions of the new Criminal Code, whereby persons who have reached the age of 14 at the time a crime is committed can be held criminally liable. Hitherto children could only be held criminally liable from the age of 14 for serious crimes, but for other crimes only after reaching the age of 16.

In 1999 there were several well-publicised cases of violence against children both in the school and in the family. In an incident on 10 October 1999 Linda V., a music teacher at Talsi Secondary School No. 2, invited her husband, home guard sergeant Andris V., into the classroom to assist in disciplining four students. Andris V. inflicted light bodily injuries on two of the youth. Ms. V. was released from her job at the school, but has sued the school to be reinstated in her position. In another incident on 3 November 1999, deputy director of the Bergi primary School Imants V., having discovered an eight-year old pupil playing with matches, hit him in the face several times, cracking his lip and bloodying his nose. In another case in early December, Vanda K., a teacher at Jurmala Secondary School No. 1, dragged a disobedient student out of the classroom by his collar, hit him in the face and kicked him. In neither of the two latter cases was any disciplinary action taken against the perpetrators of violence. In December, the Zemgale district court acquitted Nikolai K., who had “disciplined” his four-year-old son so severely as to leave him hospitalised for several weeks. In its verdict, the court ruled that “spanking with a belt cannot be considered violence aginst the victim… The father's intent was not towards cruelty or violence against the child…” The Zemgale district court prosecutor has protested the acquittal in the Senate of the Supreme Court, which had not ruled on the case by the end of the year.

The Rights of Gays and Lesbians

In September 1999 the National Human Rights Office submitted to parliament a draft law on registering single sex partnerships, which the parliament rejected. The inability to register such partnerships affects not only the right to inheritance, guardianship, but also a number of other rights, such as the ability to request residency status for a partner. For example, in November Mr. A, who is a citizen of Latvia, turned to the LCHRES with a complaint about the impossibility of arranging for a Latvian residence permit for his long-term partner, who is a citizen of the United Kingdom. The Citizenship and Migration Affairs Board rejected the request, as the 1992 Law on “On the Entry and Residence of Foreign Citizens and Stateless Persons in the Republic of Latvia” envisages the right to request such a permit only for different sex partners.

In December, in a sign of growing intolerance towards homosexuality, a new NGO called “For a Latvia Free of Homosexuality” was created. In the 21 December 1991 issue of the newspaper Neatkariga Rita Avize (Independent Morning Newspaper), the leader of the organization Andris Baumanis noted that “Homosexuals are carriers of death and undermine our demography.” In the same article, Head of the Riga Children's Rights Protection Center Janis Gulbis suggested that homosexuality can be “cured” and that women who wear pants promote the spread of homosexuality.

The Rights of the Mentally Ill

A new involuntary commitment facility for mental patients who have committed serious crimes began to accept patients in April. The facility can accommodate 60 persons. Hitherto such patients had been held in either regular mental hospitals, where they posed a potential danger to others, or in the hospital of the Riga Central Prison.

Conditions in the Ilgi special social care centre for persons with mental disabilities continued to evoke concern in 1999. Though two Ministry of Welfare reviews failed to note any serious violations, official information suggests a history of problems. In 1998 the facility, which holds approximately 300 patients, had 12 cases of tuberculosis and one death from the disease. Overall 62 patients died over the course of 1998 and 41 in 1999. While the centre's administrators attribute the alarming death rate to a flu epidemic, the most frequent diagnosis in medical documentation is heart failure. While the Ilgi facility has among the highest patient death rates of any of Latvia's 25 social care centres, other problems plague the facility as well. The patients have limited access to telephones and the only regular contact with the outside world is a monthly visit by a priest.



The LCHRES Legal Aid Programme in 1999: An Overview

Thanks to a grant from the Embassy of Finland, since March 1999 LCHRES staff lawyer Sandra Garsvane has provided free legal aid to victims of human rights violations. While accepting all cases, we especially solicited those involving violations by the police and ill-treatment of prisoners and mental patients. The legal aid consisted primarily of providing information about relevant legislation or regulations, an individual's rights, which state agency to turn to and how to formulate documents, such as official letters, complaints, etc. As can be seen in the table below, from March through the end of 1999, 165 persons turned to the LCHRES for legal aid.

The largest category of cases (30) involved law enforcement agencies. In this category, 16 complaints involved the police (unjustified arrest, police violence, exceeding official authority, refusal to file criminal charges), 4 involved the prosecutor's office (refusal to file criminal charges), and 10 concerned the courts (delays in reviewing a case).

A lingering problem concerns legalisation of one's status in Latvia. 17 complaints were received concerning the relevant actions (or inaction) of the Department of Citizenship and Migration Affairs and the Refugee Affairs Centre. 6 complaints concerned other state institutions that either did not accept documents or respond to an individual.

Insofar as general conditions in closed institutions are only gradually improving, complaints continue to be received regarding the right to humane treatment (18 on conditions in prisons and mental hospitals). As reflected in the 13 complaints from former prisoners, this category of persons faces special challenges in receiving state social assistance.

The issues of social rights and social welfare remain topical, as reflected by the 22 complaints received about pensions, benefits, and social guarantees. The second largest category of complaints overall (28) concerned housing rights. The most frequent problems were unjustified evictions, conflicts with landlords, and complaints about not being allocated housing. Further, 9 complaints concerned violations of worker's rights. 19 additional complaints covered a wide range of issues, from children's rights to discrimination.

While we did not specifically ask clients their ethnicity, we do have a record of the language – Russian or Latvian – in which they submitted their complaint. 102 complaints were in Russian and 63 were in Latvian. The gender breakdown of clients was more balanced: 89 men and 76 women.

LCHRES Legal Aid by Issue Area, March-December 1999

IssuesOral ComplaintsWritten ComplaintsTotal
1. Right to liberty and security of the person
A. In Police Institutions
B. In the Prosecutor's Office
16
4
  16
4
2. Right to a fair and public trial within a reasonable time7310
3. Right to humane treatment and respect for human dignity
A. In places of detention
B. In mental hospitals
4
1
13
 
17
1
4. Freedom from torture   
5. Freedom from discrimination1 1
6. Legal status of the person
A. Legalisation of non-citizen's status
B. Refugee or asylum seeker status
14
2
1
 
15
2
7. Right to housing
A. Eviction
B. Conflicts with landlords
C. Resident's registration
D. Other
8
7
8
5
  8
7
8
5
8. Right to property3 3
9. Right to social welfare
A. Pension or social assistance
B. Social guarantees
C. Ex-prisoners
17
3
9
2
 
4
19
3
13
10. Right to work9 9
11. Right to have one's complaint reviewed and to receive a response from a state institution6 6
12. Rights of the Child1 1
13. Various14317
TOTAL13926165


__________________LCESC
LATVIJAS CILVÇKTIESÎBU UN
ETNISKO STUDIJU CENTRS
LCHRES__________________
LATVIAN CENTER FOR HUMAN
RIGHTS AND ETHNIC STUDIES

11. Novembra krastmala 35, 212. istaba
Riga LV 1050
Tel./fakss (371) 724 3033

Introduction

The Latvian Center for Human Rights and Ethnic Studies (LCHRES) was founded in 1993 as a not-for-profit, non-partisan non-governmental organisation devoted to human rights education, monitoring human rights and ethnic relations, providing legal aid to victims of human rights violations, advocacy and the promotion of dialogue. In May 1998, the LCHRES received the EU-US Democracy and Civil Society Award. In November 1999, the LCHRES became a full member of the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights, a network of human rights groups operating in the OSCE region.

The LCHRES has received core funding from the Soros Foundation's Higher Education Support Program and Open Society Institute, the National Endowment for Democracy, and the US-Baltic Foundation. The LCHRES has received project grants from the Council of Europe, the Embassy of the Netherlands, the United Nations Development Programme, the EU PHARE programme, the Embassy of Finland and others. The core staff of the LCHRES consists of director Nils Muiznieks, deputy director Angelita Kamenska, senior researcher Ieva Leimane and staff lawyer Sandra Garsvane.

Publications in 1999

Sandra Garsvane, “Torture – is it Topical?” in Russian, (Pytki – eto aktual'no?), SM 19 March 1999.

Sandra Garsvane with Jautrite Briede, “Children are a Special Category of Person,” in Latvian, (Berni ir ipasa cilveku kategorija), Diena (The Day), 20 November 1999.

Angelita Kamenska, “Children in Places of Detention”. In Children and Families in Latvia 1998, ed. Tanja Lace. Riga, UNICEF, 1999.

Ieva Leimane, “Waiting for Refugees,” in Russian, (V ozhidanii bezhentsev), Respublika, 20 April 1999.

__________, A Guide to Patient's Rights: Information for Mentally Ill Patients and Their Relatives, in Latvian, (Padomdevejs pacienta tiesibas, informacija garigi slimajiem pacientiem un vinu radiniekiem), Riga, Latvian Center for Human Rights and Ethnic Studies, 1999.

__________, “Understand the One Closest to You!”, on the rights of the mentally ill, in Russian, (Poimite blizhnego!) in Nashe vremya (Our Time), 12 March 1999.

Ieva Leimane with Ulla Zumente-Steele, Refugees: A Handbook for Teachers, in Latvian, (Begli: Rokasgramata skolotajiem). Riga, UNHCR, 1999.

Nils Muiznieks, “The Freedom to Incite Hatred?” in Latvian, (Briviba kurinat naidu?), Diena (The Day), special supplement devoted to freedom of expression, 5 May 1999.

__________, “Integrating the Ethnic Russians in Latvia: Challenges and Prospects.” In The Baltic Sea Region: Building an Inclusive System of Security and Cooperation, eds. Joseph P. Kruzich and Anna W.E. Fahraeus. Stockholm: Embassy of the United States of America, Stockholm, Sweden, 1999.

In 1999 LCHRES staff participated in an ambitious project organised by the Institute of Human Rights of the University of Latvia - writing a university-level human rights textbook. The book is to be published in 2000. Ieva Leimane wrote a chapter on “The Historical Evolution of the Concept of Human Rights” and sub-chapters on “Women's Rights” and “Refugee Rights,” Nils Muiznieks wrote a chapter on “The Historical Development of Human Rights in Latvia, 1918-2000” and a subchapter on “Minority Rights”, Sandra Garsvane wrote a sub-chapter on “Children's Rights”, and Angelita Kamenska, Ieva Leimane and Sandra Garsvane together wrote a sub-chapter on “Human Rights in Closed Institutions.”

Work with the Media

Ieva Leimane was an expert/lecturer in a project called “Human Rights Education for Journalists” organised by the Soros Foundation – Latvia that involved 83 journalists in 8 locales. She gave presentations on the philosophy of human rights and helped in preparing materials on the media's portrayal of marginal and vulnerable groups.

Nils Muiznieks acted as creative consultant and fund-raiser for a new bilingual television programme for youth on LNT called “Domkrats” that has received funding from the Council of Europe and the Swedish Institute. The project was created in cooperation with the European Centre for Culture (Geneva).

Organisation of Seminars and Lectures

In cooperation with the Council of Europe and the Latvian Ministry of Interior, the LCHRES organised a two-day conference in January 1999 on “The European Convention on the Prevention of Torture.”

Within the “Street Law” programme of the Soros Foundation – Latvia, Sandra Garsvane has provided legal education to inmates at the Ilguciems women's prison since March 1999.

Sandra Garsvane gave a short course on international human rights to students at the “Attistiba” School of Social Work and Social Pedagogy in September 1999.

Angelita Kamenska was a guest expert at a conference on “Human Rights, Fundamental Freedoms, Democratic Institutions and the Rule of Law in Russia” organised in Moscow by the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights in June 1999.

Nils Muiznieks was a guest lecturer on human rights and integration to the Riga Rotary Club, the Riga Graduate School of Law and a seminar organised by the Programme Centre for Youth and Women.

Nils Muiznieks was a panellist on issues of identity at the Baltic Development Forum in Copenhagen, Denmark from 16-18 May 1999.

Nils Muiznieks gave a lecture on “Minorities and the Integration of the Baltic States into the European Union” during Baltic Week in Helsinki, Finland on 24 September 1999.

Nils Muiznieks gave a presentation entitled “Human Development and Social Integration” at the UNDP first Global Forum on Human Development at the United Nations in New York in late July 1999.

Legal Aid and Public Policy Advocacy

Since March 1999, Sandra Garsvane has provided free legal assistance to victims of human rights violations, especially to prisoners and victims of police abuse (see overview of complaints below). Supported by a grant from the Embassy of Finland.

Nils Muiznieks was an expert in the revision of the Framework Document for a National Programme on the Integration of Society and a consultant in the creation of the Ventspils city integration programme.

Nils Muiznieks was active in the debates surrounding the state language law, appearing frequently in the media to urge compliance with Latvia's international treaty obligations and meeting with the president on the topic to urge her to veto the first version of the law in July 1999.

Nils Muiznieks leads a working group in the Ministry of Justice that is drafting a law on Minority Rights.

Current and Future Activities

The LCHRES has begun a project on “Monitoring Human rights in Closed Institutions” and research projects on “Coping with Extremism in a Democracy” and “The Role of Women in Social Integration.”


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