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Human Rights in Latvia

1 January 1999 – 30 June 1999

Prepared by Nils Muiznieks, Angelita Kamenska,
Ieva Leimane, Sandra Garsvane

Latvian Center for Human Rights and Ethnic Studies

Judicial System and Domestic Safeguards

On 1 April 1999 a contradictory new criminal law entered into force. On the positive side, new features include the possibility of replacing criminal liability with a process of victim-offender mediation, 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 law 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 Processes entered into force on 1 March 1999. Article 9 of the old Civil Process 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. Given the costs of translation, this new provision will make civil trials less accessible to many minorities.

At the end of the first half of 1999, the National Human Rights Office (NHRO), a government ombudsman-like body, began to emerge from a management and political crisis that had paralysed it over the second half of 1998. After repeated calls in late 1998 by some NGOs and politicians for director Olafs Bruvers to step down for mismanagement of the NHRO, a majority of the parliament voted on 29 April 1999 to keep him in office. Apparently, parliamentary deputies took the following developments into consideration. Several NHRO employees who had been in positions of conflict of interest left the staff in early 1999 (however, no measures have been enacted to prevent a recurrence). 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. At mid-year the NHRO had yet to regain the public trust and political clout it had previously enjoyed, a task that will be complicated by the NHRO's current financial crisis and ensuing staff cuts and suspended projects.

Freedom of Expression and Media

The new Criminal Law that went into effect on 1 April 1999 foresees very severe penalties for libel and incitement of racial hatred. For example, Article 158 holds that "The punishment for impugning someone's honour or slander 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." Article 78 of the Criminal Law states that "For an activity that is intentionally aimed at inciting national or race hatred or disharmony […] the punishment is deprivation of liberty for a period of up to 3 years or a monetary fine up to 60 minimal monthly wages." Such harsh penalties are not consistent with Recommendation No. R (97)20 of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe on "Hate Speech" of 30 October 1997. Principle 5 states that "authorities should, in particular, give careful consideration to the suspect's right to freedom of expression given that the imposition of criminal sanctions generally constitutes a serious interference with that freedom."

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 Law to bring national legislation into line with Protocol 6.

Freedom of Movement

In May the Saeima (parliament) conducted a second reading of a draft law on emigration that is highly problematic from a human rights point of view. The law aims not at restricting certain categories of individuals from leaving the country for a given period of time, which may be permissible under certain circumstances, but at restricting emigration in general, which is contrary to international standards on freedom of movement contained in Article 12 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and Article 2 of Protocol 4 to the European Convention on Human Rights. For example, article 6 of the draft law states that a decision to forbid emigration may be taken if a person owes back taxes or has not fulfilled civil obligations and legal proceedings are pending.


Amendments to the Law on Citizenship approved in a referendum on 3 October 1998 came into force in 1999. On 2 February 1999 the Cabinet of Ministers finally 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 naturalizing, has led to a fourfold increase in naturalization applications to a current monthly average of 1200 to 1500. In order to do away with the long queues that had formed 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 Naturalization Board, the bureaucracy which administers the law.

On 18 February 1999 the Saeima adopted a law "On the Status of a Stateless Person in Latvia." The law is to regulate the status of several thousand persons 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." However, the Cabinet has not yet adopted implementing regulations governing the "legalisation" of these individuals, who remain vulnerable to expulsion or restrictions on their social and economic rights.

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. In order to raise public awareness, involve minorities and non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and promote revision of the document, government bodies alone and in co-operation with the Soros Foundation – Latvia organised a series of integration seminars throughout Latvia. The results of the debate are to feed into the revision process of the document, which is to take place over the summer.

In the first half of the year, parliamentary debate on a new State Language Law moved forward and consultations intensified between Latvian legislators on the one side and experts from the European Commission, the OSCE and the Council of Europe on the other. The draft law has received criticism for attempting to regulate language use in the private sphere beyond the strict bounds laid down by the Oslo Recommendations Regarding the Linguistic Rights of National Minorities, thereby infringing not only minority rights, but also on constitutional guarantees of freedom of expression and Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights and Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Intolerance, Xenophobia, Racial Discrimination and Hate Speech

The activities and published statements of extremist groups and individuals continued to evoke concern. The bi-monthly newspaper "A Latvian in Latvia" (Latvietis Latvija) continued to be issued regularly in the first half of 1999 and to propagandise intolerance. Issue 4 of 1999 contained an article in which the author bemoaned the humiliation experienced by Latvians who have to work for companies owned by Russians and 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." Soon thereafter, the Bureau for the Protection of the Constitution, Latvia's domestic security and intelligence agency, initiated a criminal investigation.

Russian-oriented extremist individuals and groupings have also continued to express their views as well. At the end of May three youths were 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!" 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. 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." Members of both groups have on numerous occasions been detained briefly and received fines for disturbing the peace, violating regulations on holding protests, resisting arrest, etc.

In one of the more bizarre incidents of anti-Semitism in Latvia's recent history, 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.

Individuals prosecuted for inciting racial hatred face extremely severe penalties under the new Criminal Law (see the section on freedom of expression). Though several cases have been investigated, since the restoration of independence through mid-1999 no prosecutions have been completed.

Torture, Ill-Treatment and Misconduct by Law Enforcement Officials

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 and killed a 20-year-old. 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 an officer of the security police in Jelgava under the influence of alcohol shot and killed two persons and wounded three others. In this case, criminal charges have been filed. 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.

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. 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 is drafting a report on its findings.

Condition in Prisons and Detention Facilities

The widespread incidence of tuberculosis in prisons continued to remain a serious concern. Given the tough penalties envisaged by the new Criminal Law, prison overcrowding, and thus, the tuberculosis problem, may only be exacerbated. At the beginning of 1999, the government took a decision to allocate 360,000 lats (US$ 600,000) to begin construction of a tuberculosis hospital at Olaine Prison.

In May 1999 there were 43 minors in detention facilities who had already been incarcerated for more than a year. 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 Law, 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.

Conditions in the Gaizina St. 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 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 other patients or staff, 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 the first half of 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 61 patients died over the course of 1998 and 21 in the first three months of 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.

Other problems plague the facility as well. The patients live in extreme isolation from the public, the only regular contact with the outside world being a monthly visit by a priest. Moreover, patients have limited access to telephones. In March the first steps were taken by relatives of patients, local NGOs and media representatives to form a patient support group.

Protection of Asylum Seekers and Refugees

At the beginning of 1999 the new Refugee Reception Centre at Mucenieki was officially opened. As of 16 April the facility was inhabited by 16 asylum seekers. As of mid-1999, only a total of 5 people had officially been granted refugee status in Latvia. The Saiema adopted a state budget for 1999 on 25 February without allocating any funding for refugee benefits. Currently, benefits are drawn from the budget of the Citizenship and Migration Affairs Board. If more persons are granted refugee status in the near future, the issue of funding their sustenance will become very problematic.

At the same time, 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 Kosovar refugee camps. Moreover, a group of 7 field medical personnel from the Ministry of Defence were sent to Albania.

Conscientious Objectors

Legislation currently in force in Latvia does not permit conscientious objection or alternative military service. According to the Law on Obligatory Military Service, ordained clergymen from confessions represented in the military chaplain's service are exempt from military service. However, the Jehova's Witnesses are not represented in this body. In March and April 1999 Vladimirs Gamojonovs 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 Jehova's Witnesses and the former is a clergyman. Both individuals have 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 reply to the Jehova's Witnesses Riga Congregation, Defence Minister Girts Kristovskis acknowledged that "One could agree that in the current situation not conscripting Jehova'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." The case is scheduled to be heard in court in August.

Gender Equality and Women's Rights

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 Central and Eastern Europe.

On 1 January 1999 the Ministry of Welfare appointed an official responsible for gender equality issues. Finally, Latvia has implemented one of the basic recommendation of the Beijing Platform for Action, though only time will tell whether the step represents the government's willingness to integrate gender equality issues into national policy.