Latvia's justice system has faced a difficult year following controversially low sentences handed down in serious cases and prosecutors' failure to obtain convictions or even extended detentions in high-profile matters. Prosecutors have also had a hard time securing international co-operation, coming under criticism for lack of vigilance and even bogus prosecution tactics. One prominent case of a defendant sitting in detention for over five years awaiting the verdict in his criminal trial has certainly not helped the cause either.
As the system crumbles from within, attacks by politicians on the entire judicial system are on the increase. Recently, the parliament passed a vote that can be considered a symbolic "no confidence" measure against prosecutors and the justice system as a whole. The reform of Latvia's justice system has been slow, and the more political figures become involved in the system, rather than finding ways to remedy its problems, the worse it becomes.
Parliament's waning confidence
Most of the arguments against lifting the immunity of Ādamsons or any MP focused on the fear of setting a bad precedent of prosecuting a member of parliament, particularly when the matter is connected to a parliamentary task. After all, Jānis Ādamsons was the head of an ad hoc parliamentary committee investigating a possible government link to the "paedophilia scandal." Many fear that this could prevent other ad hoc committees in the future from doing their jobs properly and put parliamentary deputies at risk.
In a country with bogus prosecutions and a shaky legal system, that may certainly be a valid argument. However, for lawmakers to apply it to Latvia is indeed a hard blow to the country's already fragile legal system. In fact, the previous prosecutor-general, Jānis Skrastiņš, resigned after allegations were made against his lack of zeal in pursuing the case—accusations made by, you guessed it, Jānis Ādamsons. At the time, Skrastiņš attributed his resignation directly to a new draft law on prosecutors that would have politicised the Office of the Prosecutor-general.
The "paedophilia scandal" itself and the case against Ainārs Eisaks, the head of the Logos Centrs modelling agency, charged with paedophilia and lewd sex, also reveal the problems of Latvia's justice system. On 31 August, Eisaks became the first person involved with the scandal to be convicted, but for some horrific reason the court shortened the jail sentence to two and a half years, employing a special amnesty provision for crimes deemed not serious.
This has invoked protest from prosecutors and politicians alike. President Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga voiced anger over the use of the amnesty provision in a radio interview: "I believe that here our court system indeed has very serious deficiencies," said the President, adding that "such a situation is indeed very frightening for our future and our security."
Prosecutors have appealed the sentence, and Eisaks has appealed the conviction. So the case is set to drag on and with it the entire so-called paedophilia scandal.
Long time coming
Another case that has long been lingering in Latvia's halls of justice is that of former banker Aleksandr Lavent. Former justice minister Valdis Birkavs rightly described the case as a violation of Lavent's human rights. Lavent, blamed for the 1994 collapse of the then largest bank in Latvia, Banka Baltija, has been incarcerated for over 62 months as his trial drags on and on through the years.
The case has attracted much attention from outside Latvia and has resulted in heavy criticism being levied against the country's legal system. Moreover, Lavent is Jewish, which has brought accusations of anti-Semitism as well. Recently, members from two foreign parliaments, ironically one from the Israeli Knesset and another from Jörg Haider's far-right Freedom Party in Austria, condemned the human rights violation suffered by Lavent through his long-term detention without a conviction.
The case finally reached the final statement stage in early September, only to have the presiding judge prevent Lavent from finishing his closing statement. The judge, Ināra Šteinerte, argued that Lavent was speaking out of context and openly threatened the court. The issue of whether the court could and should have stopped Lavent's statement has split Latvia's legal community; after all, he has waited over five years for the chance. In another twist, several prisoners held in pre-trial detention went on a ten-day sympathy hunger strike until Lavent was allowed to continue. But alas, Lavent's trial has been delayed once again after he was hospitalised due to an angina attack.
And the list goes on...
The magazine Newsweek recently attacked the conduct of Latvian prosecutors in the war crimes case against Vasili Kononov, a case that has fallen into legal limbo after an appellate court ruled prosecutors did not prove its charge of war crimes and placed the conviction on hold.
But why is Latvia in particular being hit with so many problems within its judicial system?
When politicians themselves refuse to accommodate the justice system or even to trust it, it is a sure sign that the problem has grown out of hand. Despite all the talk of raising defence spending to 2 per cent of GDP for the benefit of the nation's security, such a dysfunctional justice system will become the real threat to Latvia's future security. If the government fails to stop the slide now, the passage of laws will become tantamount to making hollow declarations, with the enforcement and delivery of law and justice looking on impotently.
Mel Huang, 14 September 2000
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The Saeima (Latvian parliament)
The Latvian Justice Ministry
Office of President Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga