2008 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices - Latvia
|Publisher||United States Department of State|
|Author||Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor|
|Publication Date||25 February 2009|
|Cite as||United States Department of State, 2008 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices - Latvia, 25 February 2009, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/49a8f179c.html [accessed 27 January 2015]|
|Disclaimer||This is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.|
Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor
February 25, 2009
The Republic of Latvia, with a population of approximately 2.25 million, is a parliamentary, multiparty democracy. Legislative authority is vested in the unicameral Saeima. Elections for the 100-seat Saeima in 2006 were free and fair. Civilian authorities generally maintained effective control of the security forces.
The government generally respected the human rights of its citizens and the large resident noncitizen community; however, there were problems in some areas. These included: serious police abuse of detainees and arrestees; poor conditions at police detention facilities; poor prison conditions and overcrowding; judicial corruption; obstacles to due process; official pressure to limit freedom of speech; violence against women; child abuse; trafficking in persons; incidents of violence against ethnic minorities; and societal violence and incidents of government discrimination against homosexuals.
RESPECT FOR HUMAN RIGHTS
1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom From:
a. Arbitrary or Unlawful Deprivation of Life
The government or its agents did not commit any politically motivated killings.
In previous years individuals were alleged to have died because of mistreatment by security forces. The suspected 2007 killing of a businessman by two police officers in a detention cell of the Sigulda police station remained under investigation. The officers involved were suspended from all duties. In October they were charged with exceeding official authority, failure to act by a state official, and intentional serious bodily injury. Their cases are awaiting trial.
There were no reports of politically motivated disappearances.
c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
The constitution and law prohibit such practices; however, there were reports that government officials employed them.
Reports continued that police severely abused persons in custody. The ombudsman's office reported receiving multiple complaints alleging police violence. Independent local and international sources continued to voice concerns about police behavior. The ombudsman's office received seven complaints regarding treatment by police and seven about treatment by prison officials. Internal police statistics listed 289 complaints of police violence in the first eight months of the year, although there may have been multiple complaints about a single incident. During the year complaints about police behavior resulted in 21 criminal investigations and 18 internal investigations, none of which found breaches of the law. Authorities dismissed the remaining complaints without opening an investigation, transferred them to other government agencies without taking action, or were considering whether to open an official investigation.
There has been little progress in the investigation of the high-profile case of alleged mistreatment of former security officer Edgars Gulbis in 2007. Authorities held Gulbis in police custody for a month due to his alleged involvement in a car-bomb attack against the chief antismuggling officer. Gulbis was later rearrested and at some point left the police car and either fell, jumped, or was pushed off a bridge into a river. Gulbis remained in jail throughout the year awaiting trial. The ombudsman's office indicated that, due to a number of shortcomings, the police internal investigation of the incident did not provide adequate explanation of Gulbis' treatment.
Prison and Detention Center Conditions
Prison and detention cell conditions remained poor. The government took no significant measures to improve prison and detention center conditions following 2007 reports by the Council of Europe (COE) human rights commissioner, by the COE Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT) on its 2004 periodic visit to the country, and by the Latvian Center on Human Rights (LCHR). The 2007 LCHR report on prisons and detention centers described a number of key problems, including prison overcrowding, violence among prisoners, and health problems (a high incidence of tuberculosis, drug addiction, and HIV infection). One prison closed in November, increasing pressure on other already crowded facilities.
The LCHR also reported poor conditions at the detention center for illegal immigrants, including degraded infrastructure with no ventilation system.
There were 10 deaths of prisoners while in custody during the first eight months of the year. Authorities indicated that two were suicides and eight resulted from natural causes. The ombudsman reported only one case during the year that could be connected to behavior of officials in prisons or detention centers. On September 5, Sergey Danilin was found dead in his cell in the Daugavpils prison, having reportedly asphyxiated on his own vomit. Prison administrators indicated that guards might have pushed Danilin as he was being transported. A prison chaplain stated that Danilin's death might have resulted from a severe beating by a prison guard. Administrators have since opened an investigation into the case and declined to comment further. There was no further progress by year's end.
The ombudsman's office stated that it received 42 complaints during the year about conditions in detention facilities, primarily about inadequate light, heat, or ventilation in cells, sanitary facilities, or insufficient exercise areas.
The government generally permitted independent monitoring of prisons and detention centers by international and local human rights groups; however, there were no independent monitoring visits to prisons and detention centers reported during the year. The CPT carried out its most recent periodic visit to the country in November and December of 2007. The CPT had not released its report on that visit by year's end.
d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention
The constitution and law prohibit arbitrary arrest and detention, and the government generally observed these prohibitions.
Role of the Police and Security Apparatus
The national police, security police, special immigration police, border guards, and other services were subordinate to the Interior Ministry. Municipal police were under local government control. The Military Counterintelligence Service and a protective service, as well as the National Guard, were subordinate to the Ministry of Defense.
Allegations of corruption and bribery within law enforcement ranks were frequent and continued to affect the public's perception of police effectiveness. During the year, the Bureau for the Prevention and Combating of Corruption (KNAB) pursued investigations of several security officials for bribery or extortion.
In September the Riga District Court sentenced the chief of the Riga city traffic police to six years in prison and confiscation of property for repeatedly accepting bribes.
In August authorities revoked the security clearance of Vladimirs Vaskevics, the head of the criminal investigative service of the customs service, following an extensive corruption investigation.
In April the Supreme Court sentenced the head of a division of the state police central criminal police department to seven years' imprisonment and confiscation of property for bribery.
In March the prosecutor general's office started prosecution of an officer from the Saldus district criminal police board for demanding and accepting bribes and an officer from the financial police for attempted intermediation of bribery. Both were convicted, but their sentences were suspended and they did not spend any time in jail.
Arbitrary Arrest and Detention
The law requires that persons be arrested openly and with warrants issued by a duly authorized judicial official, and the government generally respected this requirement in practice. The law provides a person in detention the right to a prompt judicial determination of the legality of the detention, and authorities generally respected this right in practice. Detainees were promptly informed of charges against them. The law requires the prosecutor's office to make a formal decision whether to charge or release an individual under arrest within 48 hours. This requirement was not always followed due to a backlog in the court system. A bail system exists; however, it was infrequently used and applied most often in cases of economic crimes.
Detainees have the right to have an attorney present at any time; however, authorities did not always respect this right in practice. Investigators conducted unscheduled interrogations of detainees without legal counsel. The ombudsman's office report on the Gulbis case noted that Gulbis was regularly subjected to such unscheduled "talks."
The government provided an attorney for indigent defendants. Authorities permitted detainees prompt access to family members. These rights were subject to judicial review but only at the time of trial.
While the law limits pretrial detention to no more than 18 months from the first filing of the case for the most serious crimes, and less for minor offenses, lengthy pretrial detention remained a concern of human rights groups. During the year the country's most common violations of the European Convention on Human Rights, as found by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), related to lengthy pretrial detention.
In July the ECHR ruled in favor of a former Red Army partisan, Vasilijs Kononovs, in his complaint that the courts had imprisoned him for acts that were legal at the time he committed them. In 1944 Kononovs led a raid in support of the Soviet Army against a village claimed to be aiding the Nazis. Kononovs argued that the villagers were a legitimate military target, while the court found his actions to be war crimes conducted by an occupying force. The ECHR also noted the time that had passed between the act and the conviction, while the government replied that it could not try the case during the period of Soviet occupation. The government appealed the decision.
e. Denial of Fair Public Trial
The constitution and law provide for an independent judiciary, and the government generally respected this provision in practice; however, there were significant problems, including inefficiency and corruption.
The judicial system is composed of district (city) courts; regional courts, which hear appeals from district courts and can also serve as courts of first instance; a separate administrative court, which adjudicates administrative violations; the Supreme Court, which is the highest appeals court; and the seven-member Constitutional Court, which hears cases involving constitutional issues at the request of state institutions or individuals who believe that their constitutional rights were violated.
On February 7, the Riga regional court sentenced two district court judges, Irena Polikarpova and Beatrise Talere, to eight years' imprisonment for bribery. Polikarpova and Talere appealed the sentence to the Supreme Court.
The constitution and law provide for the right to a fair trial, and most judges enforced this right; however, the fairness of individual court decisions and of judges and the court system in general remained a concern.
Trials are generally public; however, they may be closed to protect government secrets or the interests of minors. A single trial judge hears most cases, although for more serious criminal cases, at the district and regional levels, two lay assessors join the professional judge on the bench. In some criminal cases, modified juries consisting of randomly selected members of the public participate in the tribunal in a limited way. Defendants have the right to be present at their trials. At closed trials, defendants are subject to criminal sanction if they reveal any details of the case outside the courtroom. Defendants have the right to consult with an attorney in a timely manner, at government expense if they are indigent. Defendants have the right to read charges and confront witnesses against them, and may call witnesses and offer evidence to support their cases. Defendants and their attorneys have access to government-held evidence relevant to their cases. Defendants enjoy a presumption of innocence and may appeal to the highest levels in the judicial system.
During the year a special parliamentary commission was formed to investigate the judiciary and the judicial decisions mentioned in the controversial book Litigation Kitchen published by journalist Lato Lapsa in August 2007. The book included a series of transcripts of allegedly wiretapped telephone conversations, sparking allegations of unethical and illegal behavior among some judges, including discussing cases outside of court and inappropriate influence on judges from the political elite and businesses, between prominent figures in the judiciary from 1998 to 2000. The commission released an interim report in September that was inconclusive in regards to the specific allegations of the book, but claimed general improvement in the judiciary since the time of the incidents alleged in the book. Three judges have stepped down because of the allegations, but none have been charged with a crime.
In April the Saeima established an independent judicial ethics committee, and the annual congress of judges elected its members.
Political Prisoners and Detainees
There were no reports of political prisoners or detainees.
Civil Judicial Procedures and Remedies
The law provides for an independent and impartial judiciary in civil matters, including access to a court to bring lawsuits seeking damages for, or cessation of, a human rights violation. The government generally upheld the law concerning civil procedures.
In September the government established a task force to study outstanding claims for the restitution of pre-Holocaust Jewish communal property. The task force had not publicly released any findings by the end of the year. The Jewish community also sought compensation for private property last owned by Jews before the Holocaust that could not be regained by the community upon the restoration of independence because there were no identifiable heirs.
There was no further progress on restitution for either communal or heirless properties. Members of the international Jewish community complained that national and local authorities delayed or ignored claims by Jews regarding property restitution.
f. Arbitrary Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence
The constitution and law prohibit such actions, and the government generally respected these prohibitions in practice.
2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Speech and Press
The constitution and law provide for freedom of speech and of the press, and the government generally respected these rights in practice.
Observers expressed concern about freedom of speech after two persons were detained for comments interpreted as advice to remove holdings from banks. In November security police detained economist Dmitrijs Smirnovs for two days of questioning after a newspaper published his comments suggesting that the banking system was unstable and that the lat (the currency) might be devalued. Pop musician Valters Fridenbergs was also taken in for questioning for comments he made about bank stability during a concert. The law criminalizes spreading false information about the financial system. Both individuals were released without being charged.
The law criminalizes incitement to racial or ethnic hatred.
In October the Supreme Court rejected the prosecutor's office's appeal of the court's 2007 ruling that the publisher of an anti-Semitic and anti-Russian newspaper was not guilty of interethnic incitement. The paper had published articles referring to Jews as "kikes" and containing numerous derogatory statements about Russians living in the country. In rejecting the appeal, the Supreme Court noted that the newspaper's actions were unethical but not illegal.
The country has one state-owned television station, Latvian National Television (LTV), and one radio station, Latvian National Radio. A number of privately owned television and radio outlets thrived.
Independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views without restriction. The three largest Latvian language dailies were privately owned. Russian language print and electronic media were also large and active. There was one government-owned newspaper, which primarily published official records of government actions and decisions. Other newspapers were widely believed to be associated with political or economic interests; complete information on media ownership was not publicly available.
The law governing broadcast media contains a number of restrictive provisions regulating the content and language of broadcasts. Primary broadcast radio and television stations are required to use the state language (Latvian), and secondary broadcasters are allotted up to 20 percent of total broadcast time for non-Latvian language programming. Non-Latvian television broadcasts are required to have Latvian subtitles. However, these laws only apply to terrestrial broadcasts, as opposed to satellite or cable television. Extensive Russian language programming was available on both traditional channels and cable networks. These restrictions do not apply to the print media.
There was no official censorship of content of public or private media; however, the ruling political forces at times reportedly attempted to influence the content of public television broadcasts.
On May 14, the Latvian National Security Committee of the Saeima questioned Edgars Kots, the director of LTV, in a closed hearing. The media reported that committee members criticized the overall content and tone of LTV's broadcasts as biased against the government and overly negative about general developments in the country. The head of the committee stated publicly that the committee did discuss the tone and content of broadcasts of LTV and justified the hearing by asserting, "LTV influences the views of society, which in turn influence the overall security of society." Representatives of the media and the opposition New Era party criticized the hearing as an unacceptable attempt to pressure LTV.
The government's appeal of an approximately 100,000 lat (approximately $200,000) civil award for invading the privacy of LTV journalist Ilze Jaunalksne remained pending after the government was granted more time for investigation. Results from an internal investigation into wrongdoing by financial police involved in Jaunalksne's case were sent to the prosecutor's office for review and for determination as to whether criminal conduct had occurred. The report was considered confidential. As of the end of the year, criminal proceedings were in process against some of the officials involved.
In 2007 the government asked LTV reporters who broadcast a story describing a "search in connection with criminal charges" brought against influential regional politician Aivars Lembergs to reveal their sources. They refused the request. No action was taken on the case during the year, and there were no indications that the matter would be pursued further.
There were no government restrictions on access to the Internet or reports that the government monitored e-mail or Internet chat rooms. Individuals and groups could engage in the peaceful expression of views via the Internet, including by e-mail. The Internet was widely used by the public.
Academic Freedom and Cultural Events
There were no government restrictions on academic freedom or cultural events.
b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association
Freedom of Assembly
The constitution and law provide for freedom of assembly, and authorities may not prohibit public gatherings except in very limited cases related to public safety; however, organizers of demonstrations must provide advance notice to local authorities, who may change the time and place of public gatherings for such reasons as to prevent public disorder. Numerous demonstrations took place peacefully and without government interference during the year. However, some observers continued to criticize a provision of the law requiring notification of a planned protest 10 days in advance and what they characterized as vague procedures for holding a protest without prior notice.
After denying a permit in 2006, authorities issued, for a second year, a permit for a gay pride parade in Riga. While the parade was held on May 31, its organizers questioned the extremely high level of security measures taken by authorities, which organizers believed discouraged participation and limited visibility of the event.
Freedom of Association
The constitution and law provide for freedom of association, and the government generally respected this right in practice; however, the law bars the registration of Communist, Nazi, or other organizations whose activities would contravene the constitution, for example, by advocating the overthrow of the existing form of government. Nevertheless, some nationalist organizations using fascist-era slogans and rhetoric operated openly.
Under the law, members of the country's large noncitizen community are prohibited from joining and participating in any political party of 400 or more members in which less than half the party members are citizens.
c. Freedom of Religion
The constitution and law provide for freedom of religion, and the government generally respected this right in practice. However, by law, "traditional" religious groups (Lutheran, Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Old Believer, Baptist, Seventh Day Adventist and Jewish) enjoy a number of specific rights not available to "new" religions. For example, representatives of traditional religious groups may teach their religion to public school students who sign up to take classes, conduct official marriages, provide religious services for the army, and have representation in the National Ecclesiastical Council, which provides advice on religious matters to the government. New religions did not have these rights and were subject to some bureaucratic regulations and paperwork requirements not applicable to traditional religions.
In November the government passed laws regulating state relations with the Russian Orthodox and Lutheran churches, similar to laws that came into effect in May regarding the Adventist, Baptist, Jewish, Methodist, and Old Believer Orthodox churches.
Although the government does not require religious groups to register, the law accords registered religious organizations certain rights and privileges, including separate legal status for owning property or for other financial transactions, and tax benefits for donors. Single congregations that do not belong to a registered religious organization must reregister each year for 10 years. Ten or more congregations of the same denomination and with permanent registration status may form a religious association. Only churches with religious association status may establish theological schools or monasteries.
According to Ministry of Justice officials, most registration applications were approved once proper documents were submitted. The law does not permit simultaneous registration of more than one religious group (church) in a single confession. Ten congregations appealed this limitation; two of these appeals were administratively rejected during the year, the remaining eight remained pending at year's end.
The law denies foreign evangelists and missionaries the right to hold meetings and to proselytize unless registered domestic religious organizations invite them to conduct such activities. Some foreign religious denominations criticized this provision.
Societal Abuses and Discrimination
The Jewish community numbers approximately 11,000 and is largely secular and Russian speaking. There was one active synagogue in Riga and one in Daugavpils. There were no reported incidents of violent attacks targeting Jews. However, there were occasional acts of vandalism in Jewish cemeteries and anti-Semitic statements in public spaces, such as Internet fora.
For a more detailed discussion, see the 2008 International Religious Freedom Report.
d. Freedom of Movement, Internally Displaced Persons, Protection of Refugees, and Stateless Persons
The constitution and law provide for freedom of movement within the country, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights in practice. The government cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to internally displaced persons, refugees, returning refugees, asylum-seekers, stateless persons, and other persons of concern.
The law prohibits forced exile, and the government did not employ it.
Protection of Refugees
The law provides for granting asylum or refugee status in accordance with the 1951 UN Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 protocol, and the government has established a system for providing protection to refugees. During the year the government received 51 applications for asylum; two individuals were granted the status of refugees. In practice, the government provided some protection against the expulsion or return of refugees to a country where their lives or freedom would be threatened. However, there were continued reports that authorities systematically turned away persons attempting to enter the country at border checkpoints without establishing whether they may have been refugees or asylum seekers.
The government also provided temporary protection ("alternative status") to individuals who might not qualify as refugees under the 1951 convention and 1967 protocol. During the year the government granted alternative status to one person.
The 2007 LCHR report on detention facilities noted that the failure of authorities to provide information to irregular migrants and asylum seekers concerning their rights and governmental procedures was a significant human rights problem. The LCHR also found shortcomings in legislation in this field; for instance, the law governing immigration does not provide clear provisions on immigrant detention and appeal procedures, resulting in a wide variety of court decisions in apparently similar cases. Neither does the law specifically regulate the protection of rights of detained illegal immigrants and asylum seekers.
In 2007 police opened a criminal investigation following a violent attack by unidentified persons on two Somali refugees. The security police continued to investigate the case.
Citizenship is derived from one's parents (jus sanguinis). According to UNHCR data, there were 372,622 stateless persons at the end of 2007, which included 372,421 stateless persons who were considered resident noncitizens and 201 other stateless persons who did not have the rights available to resident noncitizens. The government recognized as stateless only those individuals who did not have a claim to foreign citizenship and were not eligible to apply for naturalization in Latvia. The stateless persons reflected in the UNHCR total consisted primarily of individuals of Slavic origin who moved to the country during the Soviet occupation and their descendents. They were not given automatic citizenship when the country regained its sovereignty in 1991. There are laws and procedures for granting citizenship to the noncitizen population, and more than 120,000 persons have become citizens through naturalization since the process became possible in 1995.
The UNHCR notes that the country's laws grant a transitional legal status to permanently residing persons (noncitizens) entitling them to a set of rights and obligations beyond the minimum rights prescribed by the 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons and identical to those attached to the possession of nationality, with the exception of certain limited civil and political rights.
As of year's end, most of the remaining 372,000 noncitizens were legally eligible for citizenship but had not applied for it. Noncitizens most frequently said their reason for not applying was the perceived "unfairness" of the requirements and resentment at having to apply for citizenship rather than having it automatically granted at the time of the restoration of independence. The citizenship exam included a Latvian language test and examination on various aspects of the constitution and history of the country. Resident noncitizens have permanent residence status, consular protection abroad, and the right to return to Latvia.
Resident noncitizens have full rights to employment, except for some government jobs and positions related to national security, and to most government social benefits; however, they cannot vote in local or national elections and cannot organize a political party without the participation of an equal number of citizens. Authorities reported that the number of naturalizations dropped significantly in January 2007 after the European Union (EU) granted noncitizen residents visa-free travel and work rights within the EU. The government claimed that Russia's June decision to allow these individuals to visit Russia without a visa would similarly depress the rate of naturalization. In contrast to 10,581 naturalization applications in 2006, but similar to 3,308 applications in 2007, there were 2,601 applications during the year. During the year 3,004 persons were granted citizenship through naturalization.
The European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI) noted in its 2008 report that the naturalization process remained slow and there was an urgent need to solve the problems linked to the status of noncitizens which made the persons concerned feel like second class citizens. The government response, included as an appendix to the report, argued that the government already provides a path to citizenship for almost all noncitizen residents, but many noncitizens had chosen not to pursue citizenship for personal or ideological reasons; and that granting additional rights to noncitizens would only diminish the incentive to naturalize.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) high commissioner on national minorities visited the country in April and provided recommendations to improve the naturalization process, "by granting automatic citizenship to all children born in the country after 1991 and to the newly born children of noncitizens." He further advised authorities to "grant resident noncitizens the right to vote in local elections."
The Latvian Center for Human Rights noted in its 2008 alternative report, which mirrored the ECRI report, that although international organizations and state officials on several occasions acknowledged the need to reduce the number of noncitizens, the government has neither provided sufficient funds, nor implemented consistent activities, to promote naturalization.
3. Respect for Political Rights: The Right of Citizens to Change Their Government
The constitution and law provide citizens with the right to change their government peacefully, and citizens exercised this right in practice through periodic and generally free and fair elections held on the basis of universal suffrage.
Elections and Political Participation
Free and fair elections for the Saeima were held in 2006; the Saeima elected a new president in May 2007.
On April 25, the KNAB asked five political parties to pay to the state the amounts by which they exceeded campaign-spending limits during the 2006 election campaign. According to the KNAB's final calculations, the People's Party owed the largest amount, 791,510 lats (approximately $1,570,000). The second largest of the alleged violators of campaign spending limits, Latvia's First Party/Latvia's Way, reregistered as a new party in 2007, thereby avoiding legal liability for the payment.
On August 2, the country held a referendum on whether to amend the constitution to give the public the right to initiate procedures to dismiss the Saeima directly. Forty-three percent of eligible voters took part in the referendum. The constitution requires that at least 50 percent of eligible voters vote in favor of the amendment for the referendum to be valid, so the amendment did not take effect. Of those who participated, 93 percent supported the draft amendments.
Citizens can organize political parties without restriction; however, the country's approximately 372,000 noncitizen residents were prohibited by law from organizing political parties without the participation of an equal number of citizens in the party. The election law prohibits persons who remained active in the Communist Party or various other pro-Soviet organizations after 1991 or who worked for such institutions as the former Soviet Committee for State Security (KGB) from holding office.
Janis Adamsons, a former KGB employee, was barred by the Central Election Commission from running for a seat in the Saeima in the 2002 election due to his former involvement in a Soviet security organization. The courts upheld the commission's decision. On June 24, the ECHR ruled that Adamsons' right to participate in elections had been violated and that the legal provision under which Adamsons was disqualified was too broad. The ECHR ruling noted that Adamsons had held a number of important government positions since 1991 and over that period he had not conducted any antidemocratic activities. The government appealed the decision, but its repeal was rejected and the decision became final in December.
At year's end, there were 21 women in the 100-member Saeima, and four women in the 19-member Cabinet of Ministers.
Members of minorities, including ethnic Russians and Poles, served in various elected bodies. However, the Saeima no longer publicly tracks the ethnicity of its members.
Government Corruption and Transparency
The law provides criminal penalties for official corruption; however, the government did not implement the law effectively. There was a widespread perception that corruption existed at all levels of government, and according to the World Bank's Worldwide Governance Indicators, government corruption was a problem. During the first half of the year the KNAB initiated 14 criminal cases against government officials (including members of the judiciary), compared with 30 in all of 2007 and 51 in all of 2006. The KNAB forwarded eight criminal cases involving 25 individuals to the prosecutor's office. Seven officers of various law enforcement bodies were suspects in corruption related cases, most on suspicion of taking bribes.
In May 2007, the Kuldiga District Court found Ventspils mayor Aivars Lembergs not guilty of charges of abuse of power and making false statements in connection with the operation of the Ventspils port. The government's appeal was denied, and Lembergs sued the Ministry of Justice, the prosecutor general's office and the Ministry of Finance for damages, and won a reduced settlement from the Ministry of Finance. Several of Lembergs' business and political associates were arrested and charged with related crimes, but none had been tried by year's end. During the year Lembergs had a limited voice in the Ventspils City government. In the fall the prosecutor general forwarded the 2007 case against Lembergs on charges of large-scale money laundering, bribery, abuse of office, and failure to declare property for tax purposes to the Riga Regional Court. The case had not been heard by year's end.
In 2007 the KNAB forwarded evidence to the prosecutor's office accusing a division chief of the Daugavpils City land register of accepting 31 bribes. During the year the Supreme Court sentenced the division chief to two years' imprisonment and confiscation of property. In August authorities revoked the security clearance of Vladimirs Vaskevics, the head of the criminal investigative service of the customs service, following an extensive corruption investigation. He was reassigned to the more senior position of deputy director of the State Revenue Service. The KNAB forwarded evidence in his case to the prosecutor's office, but the prosecutor's office had not formally charged Vaskevics with a criminal offense.
In October 2007 the prosecutor's office filed charges against 20 individuals, including Jurgis Liepnieks (former head of Prime Minister Kalvitis' office), who was accused of participating in a fraudulent scheme to secure an agreement with a foreign firm to introduce digital television. At year's end the trial had not begun due to a change in the presiding judge. Liepnieks asserted that former prime minister Andris Skele was also involved in the scheme; however, no charges had been brought against Skele by the end of the year.
The law requires public officials to file income declarations annually and irregularities are carefully researched. During 2007 there was a partial relaxation of rules on the acceptance of gifts by public officials. Limits were raised on the value of gifts that could be accepted by officials, provided they were not directly connected to the duties of public office. Anticorruption groups claimed that the new rules provide a loophole that could allow officials, especially elected officials, to accept large gifts as long as there was no direct beneficiary relationship between the gift giver and decisions taken by the official.
The state auditor annually reviews all governmental agency financial records, both classified and unclassified, and documents irregularities. Reports are forwarded to the prime minister. The KNAB is responsible for combating government corruption.
To combat corruption, authorities arranged training and seminars for approximately 1,400 personnel during the year on various aspects of conflict of interest and internal controls against corruption.
A Cabinet of Ministers' regulation provides a mechanism for public access to government information, and the government generally provided access to citizens in practice. There were no indications that noncitizens and the foreign press were denied access.
4. Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Violations of Human Rights
A number of domestic and international human rights groups generally operated without government restriction, investigating and publishing their findings on human rights cases. Government officials met with domestic NGO monitors and responded to their inquiries; however, the government often lacked the political will or resources to act on NGO reports or recommendations. A parliamentary Human Rights Committee did not enjoy the confidence of human rights NGOs.
Only a few NGOs claimed to address the broad range of human rights problems. Among the most visible was the LCHR. Several NGOs dealt with specific issues: Apeirons was concerned with persons with physical disabilities; Marta focused on the protection of women's rights; Providus, the Center for Public Policy, and Delna (the national branch of Transparency International) focused on combating corruption; and Zelda focused on mental disability. None of these NGOs were closely aligned with the government or political parties.
The government cooperated with international organizations and permitted visits by their representatives. During the year few international organizations published reports on or visited the country.
In February the ECRI released a report on the country, based largely on a visit in March 2007. The report noted progress in some areas, but indicated that the number of racially motivated attacks targeting visible minorities had increased at the time of their visit and the government response had been inadequate; racist discourse geared toward newcomers and certain ethnic and religious groups by some politicians and in the media remained a problem; and problems persisted with the full integration of the Russian-speaking population, partly due to alleged job discrimination and to obstacles to Russian-speakers' participation in public and political life in the country. In its response, the government argued that racially motivated violence was limited to isolated incidents and that both changes to the law in 2007 and training had helped police better respond to incidents when they happen.
The OSCE high commissioner on national minorities visited the country in April and provided recommendations to improve the naturalization process, "by granting automatic citizenship to all children born in Latvia after 1991 and to the newly born children of noncitizens." He further advised the government to "grant resident noncitizens the right to vote in local elections."
During the year the government strengthened the ombudsman's office, which was established in 2007 to protect the rights of individual citizens in relation to the government, by providing a longer term of office for the ombudsman, granting the ombudsman the right to propose changes to legislation, and requiring an annual ombudsman's report to the Saeima. During the year the ombudsman's office represented a person in court for the first time, in a case of discrimination against a woman due to pregnancy. The ombudsman's office noted that procedural constraints made it difficult for it to participate in many discrimination cases. None of the ombudsman's recommendations to parliamentary commissions were adopted in legislation. Local human rights organizations continued to voice concern over the office's limited response to human rights issues.
5. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons
The law prohibits discrimination based on race, gender, language, disability, or social status; however, violence against women and racial minorities, societal discrimination against women and homosexuals, child abuse, and trafficking in persons were problems.
The law specifically criminalizes rape but does not recognize spousal rape. Criminal penalties vary depending on the nature of the crime, the age of the victim, and the criminal history of the offender. Such penalties range from probation to life imprisonment.
A local NGO, the Skalbes Crisis Center, reported that rape laws were ineffective and that rapes were underreported due to a tendency by police to blame the victim. Police reported that the number of criminal cases involving rape had remained stable in recent years and that few rapes were committed by individuals who were strangers to the victims.
Violence against women is against the law; however, there are no laws that deal specifically with spousal abuse. Although NGOs and police agreed that domestic violence was a significant problem, the law was not effectively enforced because abuse was underreported. Victims of abuse were often uninformed about their rights and were reluctant to seek redress through the justice system. Human rights groups asserted that the legal system, including the courts, did not always take domestic violence cases seriously. Police stated they could only make arrests if either the victim or a witness agreed to file charges or if police actually caught someone in the act of committing the abuse.
There were no shelters designed specifically for battered or abused women. Women who experienced violence could seek help in family crisis centers; however, these centers had limited capacity and gave priority to women with children. There were no dedicated rape or assault hotlines; however, NGOs managed approximately five general crisis hotlines. The NGO Marta Center operated Web sites that provided information and legal assistance for female victims of violence.
Prostitution is legal, although procurement is not. Prostitution was widespread and was often linked to organized crime. Riga was an increasingly popular destination for sex tourism.
Sexual harassment is illegal; however, in the absence of complaints, the government was unable to enforce the law. Sexual harassment of women in the workplace reportedly was common. Cultural factors tended to discourage women from filing complaints of harassment.
Women enjoy the same rights as men, including rights under family law, property law, and in the judicial system. The law prohibits employment discrimination; however, in practice women frequently faced hiring and pay discrimination, particularly in the private sector. The law also prohibits women from performing physically demanding jobs in unhealthy conditions, which are specified in a list agreed upon by the Cabinet of Ministers.
The law prohibits work and wage discrimination based on gender and requires employers to set equal pay for equal work; however, government regulatory agencies lacked the skills and resources to implement the law fully. Some progress was made during the year. For example, the Ministry of Welfare implemented an awareness campaign that encouraged primary education teachers to portray more women as professionals and more men as childcare providers.
The government was committed to children's rights and welfare; however, in practice authorities did not fully enforce constitutional provisions and laws related to children.
A local NGO working with abused children, the Dardedze Center Against Violence, stated that the number of reported instances of child abuse, including sexual abuse, had increased in the past several years. The center attributed this largely to better reporting due to increased awareness of the problem. Laws against child abuse were enforced effectively, although the center observed that coordination among agencies involved in the protection of children's rights was weak. Children from families that were unable to care for them had access to government-funded boarding schools that provided adequate living conditions; however, these schools had lower educational standards than regular state schools.
Police expressed concern about an increase in the number of children subjected to commercial sexual exploitation and "traveling pedophiles" in the country for the purpose of sex tourism.
In October the UN special rapporteur on the sale of children, child prostitution, and child pornography visited the country. In preliminary findings, she noted a low number of reported incidents, but expressed concern about an increase in pornography and child sex tourism, at times facilitated by the Internet, and potentially exacerbated by the country's economic downturn.
Trafficking in Persons
The law prohibits all forms of trafficking in persons; however, there were reports that persons were trafficked to, from, and within the country for commercial sexual exploitation and from the country for forced labor.
The country was a source for women destined for the commercial sex trade in Cyprus, Denmark, Germany, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain, and the United Kingdom; women and teenage girls were also trafficked within the country for commercial sexual exploitation. At least one case of trafficking of men and women to the United Kingdom for agricultural work was still being prosecuted. In one known case, the country served as a destination for trafficking victims from Thailand.
The number of trafficking victims was impossible to ascertain. Relaxed travel regulations within the EU allowed traffickers to target Latvian nationals more easily. Tens of thousands of men and women departed the country in search of economic opportunities created by the country's entry into the EU labor market. Reports indicated that some of these persons might have become victims of labor traffickers. Those most at risk were persons from unstable families and unemployed or marginally employed women from 17-25 years old with poor education and from economically underdeveloped areas.
Police believed that most traffickers were small-scale criminal groups with well-established contacts in destination countries. Law enforcement agencies reported that, because of the country's strict law enforcement since 2006, trafficking organizers were sending persons who began as trafficking victims to recruit their family and friends, rather than risk attempting to recruit in person.
Recruitment over the Internet and through marriage agencies was also popular. The country's antitrafficking squad reported that traffickers usually avoided threatening or applying force when recruiting their victims. Although trafficking victims often consented to being transported abroad, they were usually misled by recruiters with offers of marriage or jobs as dancers.
The law provides for prison sentences of up to 15 years for trafficking. Most perpetrators continued to be prosecuted under a statute that prohibits persons being sent abroad for sexual exploitation. This law, like the antitrafficking statute, carries a prison sentence of up to 15 years. The legal definition of trafficking in persons includes internal trafficking and trafficking for labor exploitation.
Three Chinese nationals were smuggled into the country in August. Investigation of the incident led to 11 arrests, including 10 Latvian nationals and one Lebanese national. Charges for alien smuggling in an organized group have been brought against them, although they had not been tried by year's end. A similar case during the year involving smuggling of Syrian nationals led to five more arrests.
During the year, police finalized investigations of 11 cases for sending persons abroad for sexual exploitation, a form of human trafficking criminalized by the Latvian Criminal Law. All 11 cases were submitted to courts.
During the year courts convicted 11 traffickers for activities during or prior to 2008. Three convictions resulted in prison terms from three to 10 years and confiscation of property. For seven traffickers the conviction resulted in conditional sentences and no imprisonment. Three of the conditionally sentenced traffickers were subject to property confiscation. For one trafficker the conviction resulted in a fine.
In many cases, a lack of recognition among the judiciary of the severity and impact of trafficking led to minimal or suspended sentences for traffickers.
There were no reports during the year that officials were involved in trafficking.
The country maintained several facilities to care for domestic and foreign victims of trafficking. The Marta Center remained the principal provider of assistance to trafficking victims. In November 2007 the government created the Shelter Association Safe Home, which used 27,665 lats (approximately $48,000) in government funds to provide assistance and shelter to trafficking victims throughout the year. Both facilities had the capacity to accommodate and provide services to up to 14 victims at a time. The Shelter Association Safe Home rehabilitated four trafficking victims identified during the year. The Marta Center provided services to fewer victims than in the past, and in November the government ended financial support of the Marta Center's programs, including maintenance of its antitrafficking hot line.
The government systematically monitored antitrafficking efforts and focused mainly on prosecution, victim protection, and prevention. The Ministry of Interior worked with local NGOs and international organizations to develop and implement an antitrafficking project called "Open Labor Market for Women" and maintained an antitrafficking Web portal both to educate the public and provide information resources to specialists, such as law enforcement staff, educators, and social workers. Trafficking victims and witnesses were able to use the Web portal to report instances of trafficking. The Ministry of Interior led a government working group that held regular sessions to coordinate the antitrafficking activities of ministries, government agencies, and NGOs.
Under the national action plan to combat trafficking, the Ministry of Education is in charge of trafficking prevention. Trafficking prevention is part of the social sciences curriculum at the elementary and secondary school levels. The Attistiba College of Social Work and Social Pedagogy and the Latvian Police Academy offered courses, approved by the ministry, to educate future social workers and law enforcement specialists on how to prevent trafficking and assist victims.
See also the State Department's 2008 Trafficking in Persons Report.
Persons with Disabilities
The law prohibits discrimination against persons with disabilities in employment, education, access to health care, and other state services, and the government generally enforced these provisions. The law mandates access to buildings for persons with disabilities; however, most buildings were not accessible.
A report on "closed" institutions released in 2007 by the LCHR summarized a number of problems in psychiatric hospitals and social care homes for persons with mental disabilities, including restrictions on privacy, violation of rights to a private life, and inhumane treatment by personnel that ranged from negligence to emotional and physical violence. NGOs noted no changes in these conditions during the year.
Attacks against racial minorities continued to be a problem, though fewer cases were reported than in previous years. In contrast with 16 registered cases in 2007, there were six registered complaints of abusive behavior against ethnic or racial minorities during the first eight months of the year.
Of these, one was an allegedly racially motivated violent attack against an ethnic minority and the remaining five were incidents that involved hate speech. NGOs representing minority groups claimed that these statistics underreported the actual number of incidents. The ombudsman's office received 17 written complaints of racial or ethnic discrimination and 14 complaints regarding discrimination on the basis of language. In August the European Agency for Fundamental Rights' annual report criticized the "limited" capacity of the country's system to collect data on incidents of racial crime or discrimination.
In a 2007 report, the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) expressed concern that the law mandating the use of the Latvian language in all dealings with public institutions, including with local authorities, may discriminate against linguistic minorities, including the Russian-speaking minority, which in 2007 constituted approximately 35 percent of the population. In particular, ECOSOC expressed concern that older members of linguistic minorities may be disadvantaged in receiving public services.
The government acknowledged that the Romani community faced high levels of unemployment and illiteracy, as well as widespread societal discrimination. In January 2007 the government began implementing a national action planto address problems faced by the country's estimated more than 8,000 Roma with respect to employment, education, and human rights. The action plan was criticized for lacking the funding necessary to achieve substantial improvement in conditions for Roma. During the year 28 members of the Romani community were trained as teacher's assistants in an effort to improve access and participation in the educational system. Two of those 28 were working in schools.
On July 29, the government expanded the list of professions in which persons are required to have a minimum level of proficiency in Latvian.
The government eliminated the position of special assignment minister for integration and transferred responsibility for some of the functions formerly conducted by the secretariat to the Ministry for Child and Family Affairs.
Other Societal Abuses and Discrimination
There were no reports of societal violence or discrimination against homosexuals; however, the population at large appeared to have little tolerance for homosexuality.
During the year the city of Riga permitted a gay pride event under heavy police protection. There were reports of verbal harassment by opponents from outside the security perimeter, but there were only minor violations of public order. Organizers of the event questioned the severe security measures imposed by the authorities, which they believed discouraged participation and limited visibility of the event. In April the minister for the Secretariat of Social Integration removed a list of "vulnerable groups" from the national program on the promotion of tolerance after his consultations with church representatives. Some human rights NGOs believed that the list was removed because it included the Lesbian Gay Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) community.
There were no reports of societal violence or discrimination against persons with HIV/AIDS.
6. Worker Rights
a. The Right of Association
The law entitles workers, except for the uniformed military, to form and join independent unions of their choice without previous authorization or excessive requirements, and workers exercised this right in practice. Approximately 15 percent of the workforce was unionized during the year.
The law allows unions to conduct their activities without interference, and the government protected this right in practice. The law recognizes the right to strike, subject to limitations that include obligatory, prolonged prestrike procedures and the prohibition of some types of solidarity strikes and political strikes. While most workers were free to exercise the right to strike within these parameters, labor regulations prohibit judges, prosecutors, police, fire fighters, border guards, employees of state security institutions, prison guards, and military personnel from striking. A labor law addressing disputes identifies arbitration mechanisms that unions and members of those professions forbidden from striking, may use in lieu of striking.
b. The Right to Organize and Bargain Collectively
The law provides for collective bargaining, and workers exercised this right in practice. There were no reports of antiunion discrimination.
There are no export processing zones.
c. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor
The law prohibits forced or compulsory labor, including by children. Women and children were trafficked abroad and within the country for commercial sexual exploitation; men and women were trafficked to the United Kingdom for forced labor. Three women were trafficked to the country from Thailand to work as masseuses; they complained to authorities that work conditions and compensation were not what they had been led to expect. After filing the complaint, the women were briefly provided government-funded victims' assistance services but were subsequently deported on short notice.
d. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment
The law and policies protect children from exploitation in the workplace, including policies regarding acceptable working conditions, and the government generally implemented these laws and policies in practice. However, there were reports that children were trafficked for commercial sexual exploitation. The law restricts employment of those under the age of 18 by prohibiting night-shift or overtime work. The statutory minimum age for employment is 15, although children between the ages of 13 and 15 may work in certain jobs outside of school hours with written permission from a parent.
Inspectors from the Ministry of Welfare's State Labor Inspectorate are responsible for enforcing the child labor laws, and they did so effectively.
e. Acceptable Conditions of Work
The legally mandated monthly minimum wage of 160 lats (approximately $317) did not provide a decent standard of living for a worker and family. As of July, the average monthly wage was approximately 385 lats (approximately $762). The State Revenue Service is responsible for enforcing minimum wage regulations, and it did so effectively.
The law provides for a mandatory 40-hour maximum workweek with at least one 42-hour rest period weekly. The maximum permitted overtime is 200 hours per calendar year. Excessive compulsory overtime is forbidden. The law requires premium pay in compensation for overtime, unless other forms of compensation are agreed to in a contract. By law an employee working overtime receives premium pay that is at least equal to the regular pay rate. These standards were generally respected for both citizens and noncitizen workers.
The law establishes minimum occupational health and safety standards for the workplace, which were effectively enforced. Workers have the legal right to remove themselves from situations that endangered health or safety without endangering their continued employment; however, authorities did not enforce this right.