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U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 1994 - Latvia

Publisher United States Department of State
Publication Date 30 January 1995
Cite as United States Department of State, U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 1994 - Latvia, 30 January 1995, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/3ae6aa4634.html [accessed 20 September 2014]
DisclaimerThis 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.
 

 

Latvia, having regained its independence in 1991 after 50 years of forced annexation by the Soviet Union, is a parliamentary democracy. The 1993 coalition government comprising the Latvia's Way and Farmers' Union parties broke up and was replaced by another government dominated by Latvia's Way. The Prime Minister, as chief executive, and the Cabinet are responsible for government operations. A 1991 Constitutional Law, which supplements the 1922 Constitution, provides for basic rights and freedoms.

The security apparatus consists of: the national police and other services subordinate to the Interior Ministry; municipal police operating under local government control; the National (Home) Guard, a mainly volunteer reserve which assists in police activities; and the Latvian Republic Security Service (LRSS). All these organizations were responsible for abuses, including use of lethal or excessive force. In late 1994, the National Guard and LRSS, which had operated independently, were both placed under Defense Ministry jurisdiction. All active-duty Russian troops left Latvia by August 31, 1994, although as many as several thousand officers demobilized in place remained illegally.

Traditionally dominated by agriculture and forestry-based industry, with military-industrial production introduced by the Soviets, Latvia's varied economy is increasingly oriented toward the service sector. As the transition from a centrally planned to a market-oriented economic system continues, private enterprise in trade and services is thriving, and about 50 percent of farmland is now in private hands. In the industrial sector, progress is slower, and the first stage of mass privatization of firms is not scheduled to begin until 1995. With a stable, freely traded currency, unemployment around 8 percent, and annual inflation about 25 percent in 1994 and trending downward, the economy has begun to grow again. A key development in 1994 was the enactment of a law on naturalization and citizenship, and promulgation of attendant implementing regulations. If carried out, the law will allow most of Latvia's approximately 700,000 noncitizen residents to seek naturalization over the next several years. The main requirements are knowledge of the Latvian language, history, and Constitution, as well as a pledge of loyalty to Latvia. While Russia and some noncitizens criticized the law, most independent experts, including the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) resident mission, deemed it a compromise consistent with international norms. By year's end, the Government had not yet introduced its national program for protecting individual rights, and Parliament had not yet adopted on third reading a law specifying the rights of noncitizens.

Police and security forces, which are ethnically mixed, continue to use violence and excessive force, occasionally resulting in death, and the Government has not yet taken adequate disciplinary action against those responsible. Prison conditions remained substandard, and the authorities reportedly injured many inmates when they suppressed prison hunger strikes. Although the Citizenship and Immigration Department (CID) continued to act arbitrarily and to ignore court orders in some cases concerning the residence status of noncitizens, independent observers noted limited improvements in the latter half of 1994.

RESPECT FOR HUMAN RIGHTS

Section 1 Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:

a. Political and Other Extrajudicial Killing

There were no reports of political killings.

Latvian media reported extensively on instances in which security officials inappropriately used lethal force, resulting in the shooting deaths of at least two innocent civilians. In a separate case, LRSS officials allegedly beat a detainee so badly that he died of his injuries. Investigations continue in these cases, and subsequently the Government greatly reduced the size of the LRSS, limited its functions, and placed it under the jurisdiction of the Defense Ministry.

b. Disappearance

There were no known instances of political abductions or disappearances.

c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment

The Constitution prohibits torture. However, there were credible reports that police and prison personnel beat detainees and prison inmates (see Section 1.a.). There were no known instances in which the Government prosecuted those responsible.

Prison conditions remain poor. Inadequate sanitation facilities, persistent shortages of blankets and medical care, and insufficient lighting and ventilation are common problems, as is the availability of resources. The prohibition against allowing detainees awaiting trial to send mail, which existed under Soviet law, continues.

In mid-1994 the authorities, using Interior Ministry prison guards with reinforcements from special Interior Ministry police brigades, reportedly suppressed large-scale hunger strikes against prison conditions and injured many inmates when they cracked down harshly. Although the State Minister for Human Rights appointed an investigative commission, the Government by year's end had taken no disciplinary action or legal measures against those officials alleged to have used excessive force.

The situation for some imprisoned children was extremely poor, although some improvements were reported in 1994. Credible reports indicate that children as young as 14 years old were kept in unsanitary conditions and suffer from disease and deprivation. Both boys and girls are subject to violence and possible sexual abuse. One of the legacies of Soviet domination is the regular practice of hazing military recruits. The authorities did not take any significant disciplinary or legal action to punish military authorities who accept or tolerate cruel and degrading treatment of young soldiers.

d. Arbitrary Arrest, Detention, or Exile

There were no known instances of arbitrary arrest or exile. As of October 1, the responsibility for issuing arrest warrants was transferred from prosecutors to the courts. The law requires the prosecutor's office to make a formal decision whether to charge or release a detainee within 72 hours after arrest. Charges must be filed within 10 days of arrest. A detainee may not be held for more than 6 months without new arrest orders being issued by the prosecutor's office. No detainee may be held for more than 18 months without the case going to court. Detainees have the right to have an attorney present at any time. These rights are subject to judicial review, but only at the time of trial.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

Although the criminal justice system is organized according to the former Soviet model, Latvia is reforming its judicial system and adding regional courts. For more serious criminal cases, two lay assessors join the professional judge on the bench. There are no reports that the Government improperly influenced judges.

Trials may be closed if state secrets might be revealed. In one case of a parliamentarian accused of collaborating with the Soviet secret police (KGB), the trial was closed to protect the identity of ex-KGB officers who appeared as witnesses. All defendants have the right to hire an attorney, and the State will lend funds to destitute defendants for this purpose. Defendants have the right to read all charges and confront all witnesses. Defendants may offer witnesses and evidence to support their case.

In May the state prosecutor informed the Saeima (parliament) of allegations that five parliamentarians (of whom two were government ministers) were suspected of having willingly collaborated with the KGB. All Saeima candidates had been required to sign documents denying such collaboration. Although all five originally denied KGB links, the Saeima majority voted to suspend their parliamentary mandates pending the outcome of trials to determine their guilt or innocence. The Government characterized this step as an unconstitutional infringement of the parliamentarians' right to a presumption of innocence as well as a violation of Saeima procedures. Nevertheless, at year's end, three of the accused were still barred from exercising their parliamentary responsibilities pending conclusion of lengthy trials and appeals. A former minister without portfolio was exonerated and returned to Parliament, while the former Foreign Minister admitted limited cooperation with the KGB and resigned his seat.

f. Arbitrary Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence

By law, law enforcement authorities require a judicial warrant to intercept mail, telephone calls, or other forms of communication.

Section 2 Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Speech and Press

Latvia generally enjoyed freedom of speech and press throughout 1994, which is provided for by the Constitutional Law. The 1991 Latvian press law prohibits censorship of the press or other mass media. In 1994 the number of independent television and radio outlets, broadcasting in both Russian and Latvian, continued to grow. Two cable television companies compete for subscribers in Riga, who continue to increase in number.

Virtually all newspapers and magazines in Latvia are privately owned, and new publications continued to appear. Newspapers in both Latvian and Russian published a wide range of criticism and political viewpoints.

In September the Riga city council adopted a law which would have banned the distribution of certain foreign publications "directed against Latvian national independence." Before the law was scheduled to take effect, however, the Government's Minister of State Reform exercised her legal authority to overrule the city council. In overturning this local legislation, which was intended to outlaw the distribution of hard-line Russian nationalist publications, the Government argued that the press ban would have been a violation of international human rights instruments as well as Latvian guarantees of freedom of the press. Riga city council officials did not appeal the Government's decision but suggested they would use indirect administrative measures, such as the licensing of newspaper dealers, to restrict unwanted publications.

There are no restrictions on academic freedom.

b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association.

The authorities legally do not have the power to prohibit public gatherings. Organizers of demonstrations must provide advance notice to local authorities, who may change the time and place for such reasons as fear of public disorder. In 1994 numerous mass meetings and political demonstrations took place without government interference.

The Constitution provides for the right to associate in public organizations. However, the law on registering public organizations was amended in late 1993 to bar registration of Communist, Nazi, or other organizations whose activities would contravene the Constitution. More than 40 political parties are officially registered.

In October 1993, the Cabinet directed authorities to close three small organizations that allegedly had plotted a coup against the Latvian Government in connection with the insurrection in Moscow, including the Union of Communists. That organization and the like-minded Union for the Protection of Veterans' Rights sued the Government for its refusal to register them as legal organizations. In September a court ruled that the Justice Ministry had acted properly in refusing to register the Union of Communists.

The Justice Ministry also refused to register the League of Stateless Persons in Latvia on the grounds that noncitizens are prohibited from forming "political" organizations. While the refusal to register the League has serious legal consequences, such as the ability to incorporate and hold property, the authorities did not prevent the League from holding meetings and speaking out on behalf of noncitizens.

c. Freedom of Religion

The Government does not interfere in the exercise of religious freedom. Foreign evangelists are permitted to hold meetings and proselytize. The Government does not require the registration of religious groups. Only religious groups which have members who are Latvian citizens, however, may incorporate.

d. Freedom of Movement Within the Country, Foreign Travel, Emigration, and Repatriation

There are no obstacles to freedom of movement within the country, foreign travel, or repatriation of citizens.

Some noncitizens may require reentry permits. In late 1994, the Government was developing a new travel document for noncitizen residents. Before issuing this document, it ran short of the former Soviet passports that it previously issued to noncitizens. Pending the Government's issuance of the new document (or purchase of additional former Soviet passports), foreign travel for some noncitizens was temporarily restricted.

Latvia is not a signatory to international conventions on refugees and does not have a law on political asylum. Most of those seeking refugee status are persons from the Middle East entering by land from Russia and hoping to reach Scandinavia; Latvia usually attempts to return such applicants to Russia.

Section 3 Respect for Political Rights: The Right of Citizens to Change Their Government

Citizens have the right to change their government. Latvia held free and fair elections for Parliament in 1993 and for local councils in May 1994, with the participation of numerous parties and factions representing a broad political spectrum. Eight parties won seats in the Saeima, and 90 percent of eligible voters participated, using a secret ballot.

There was no mechanism for the many residents of Latvia who were not citizens to participate in the elections. Furthermore, there was a Latvian-language requirement for candidates in local elections. A similar requirement may also apply to future Saeima candidates, but in 1994 the Saeima rejected efforts to apply a language requirement to its own members retroactively. There are no ethnic restrictions on parliamentary representation, and ethnic Russians serve in the Saeima.

In July the Saeima approved the final version of the naturalization law based on a much-amended bill originally submitted by the ruling Latvia's Way party. Since the restoration of independence in 1991, Latvian citizenship had previously been accorded only to those persons who were citizens of the independent Latvian Republic in 1940 and their direct descendants. Owing to the Russification policy pursued during the Soviet era, ethnic Latvians make up only about 54 percent of the total population and do not constitute a majority in seven of Latvia's eight largest cities. Many Latvian citizens are particularly sensitive about citizenship and naturalization issues owing to the large minority that is not ethnically Latvian.

In late June, the Saeima adopted a law on naturalization that would have set annual quotas of less than 20,000 applicants in each year after 2001. Following serious criticism by international organizations and foreign governments, President Ulmanis sent the law back to Parliament with a recommendation to eliminate the quota provision from the law. The Saeima accepted the President's recommendation, and the enacted law met with approval by most international human rights experts from the Council of Europe (COE) and other international organizations.

As enacted, the naturalization law provides that various categories of noncitizens will be eligible to apply for naturalization over a period extending from 1995 until early in the next century. Highest priority will be given to spouses of Latvian citizens, ethnic Latvians, citizens of other Baltic states, and persons born in Latvia. The law includes a Latvian language and residence requirement as well as restrictions on naturalization of former Soviet KGB and military officers. The law requires applicants for citizenship to renounce previous non-Latvian citizenship, to have knowledge of the Constitution, and to take a loyalty oath. Furthermore, the law also provides for legal guarantees concerning naturalization procedures and decisions through operation of (a) a parliamentary supervising committee; (b) an obligation to render decisions within 1 year from the date of application; and (c) judicial review of decisions not to grant citizenship. International experts, Latvian government officials, and domesic human rights monitors agreed that Latvia will must place high priority on implementing the naturalization law in a fair, impartial manner and provide greater opportunities for noncitizens to learn the Latvian language.

The Citizenship and Immigration Department (CID), which has administrative responsibility for registering noncitizens, has consistently failed to implement properly and fairly laws affecting noncitizens. Most cases involve CID denials of noncitizen residents' applications for "permanent resident" status. Although negative CID decisions are subject to judicial review, when courts do overturn negative CID decisions, the CID frequently refuses to comply. In October Minister of State for Human Rights Janis Tupesis acknowledged unprofessionalism on the part of CID officials but denied any large-scale violations of human rights. Toward the end of the year, there was some evidence of modest improvement in the CID's implementation of court orders.

Section 4 Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Violations of Human Rights.

A few nongovernmental organizations devoted to research and advocacy of human rights issues, including prison conditions, operate without government restriction. Several organizations deal with issues of concern to local ethnic Russians, presenting them to the courts and the press.

The Government demonstrated a willingness to engage in dialog with nongovernmental organizations working on human rights issues, particularly after it created in March a new post of State Minister for Human Rights. It welcomed visits by human rights organizations and received delegations from, among others, the CSCE, the COE, and the United Nations. A resident CSCE mission was established in Latvia with a mandate to "address citizenship issues and other related matters." Latvian officials worked particularly closely with the CSCE and COE during the drafting and ultimate adoption of the citizenship law.

In late July, the Government hosted a special high-level mission organized by the United Nations Development Program, the COE, and the CSCE to discuss the formulation of a national program for the protection and promotion of human rights. Headed by the Federal Human Rights Commissioner for Australia, the mission met with official and nongovernmental sources and provided the Government with observations on the human rights situation as well as recommendations for developing domestic institutions to protect human rights.

Section 5 Discrimination Based on Race, Sex, Religion, Disability, Language, or Social Status

The Constitutional Law provides that all persons are equal under the law regardless of race, sex, religion, language, social status, or other grounds, and grants equal rights to work and wages to persons of all nationalities. Of a total population of 2.7 million, there are 1.4 million Latvians, 900,000 Russians, 120,000 Belarusians, and 100,000 Ukrainians.

Women

Women possess the same legal rights as men. The Latvian Labor Code prohibits women from performing "hard jobs or jobs having unhealthy conditions." based on a list agreed between the Cabinet and labor unions. Beyond this, it bans employment discrimination. In reality, women frequently face hiring and pay discrimination, especially in the emerging private sector. Women apparently have not brought any discrimination suits before the courts.

Sources indicate that the problem of domestic violence against women is fairly widespread and is often connected with alcohol abuse. There is anecdotal evidence suggesting that the entire legal system, including the courts, tends to downplay the seriousness of domestic violence. Observers suggest that police are sometimes reluctant to arrest in such cases. No programs exist specifically to assist victims of domestic abuse. Adult prostitution has not been outlawed; it is increasing and is often linked with organized crime.

Women's advocacy groups are still small. They are involved in finding employment for women, lobbying for increased social benefits, and banning the hazing of military recruits.

Children

The Government seeks to ensure that children's human rights are respected and their basic welfare needs met. A few children's advocacy groups are active, particularly in lobbying for legislation to protect children's rights and for increased welfare payments for children. Legislative gaps hampered efforts to win convictions in child molestation cases. Law enforcement authorities have won court suits to remove children from abusive parents and secured convictions in child prostitution cases.

Children's advocates point to the lack of special institutions for rehabilitation and vocational training of juvenile offenders. Although recent legislation provides for the establishment of such special schools, the Government failed to budget funds for this purpose. Consequently, juveniles are frequently housed in regular prison facilities after committing relatively minor offenses.

National/Racial/Ethnic Minorities

The Constitutional Law provides that only citizens may occupy state positions, establish political parties, own land, and "choose a place of abode on Latvian territory." Under the Constitution, all residents of Latvia enjoy equal rights under the law. However, the majority of persons who are not ethnic Latvians have difficulty participating fully in the civic life of the country. Reliable sources suggest that practical problems are most acute for those noncitizens who have only temporary residence permits in Latvia. These are typically people residing in factory dormitories or housing units previously connected to the Soviet or Russian military.

The Latvian language law requires employees of the State and of all "institutions, enterprises, and institutes" to know sufficient Latvian to carry out their profession. The law also requires such employees to be conversationally proficient in Latvian in order to be able to deal with the public. Despite the language law, there have been no reports of widespread dismissals, even in the city of Daugavpils, in which 87 percent of the population is not ethnically Latvian, and Russian is the prevailing language in industry. Nevertheless, many non-Latvians believe that they have been disfranchised and that the language law discriminates against them, although there are no reports of widespread dismissals among management, teachers, or other sectors.

Some ethnic Russians have also complained of de facto discrimination resulting from Latvia's property laws, which limit land ownership to citizens. Moreover, noncitizens were given fewer privatization certificates (which will eventually be used to purchase land, apartments, and stocks) than citizens. New legislation, however, allows land ownership by companies in which noncitizens own shares. Because of past Soviet Russification policies, ethnic Russians generally live in newer, better housing than ethnic Latvians. The level of compensation for their apartments to those emigrating from Latvia is not high enough to permit them to purchase an apartment in Russia. Latvia does not officially grant any compensation to former Russian officers for apartments assigned them by the Soviet military, although at least some seem to circumvent such legal restrictions.

The Government has agreed to continue using Russian as the language of instruction in public schools where the pupils are primarily Russian speakers. Although all non-Latvian-speaking students in public schools are supposed to learn Latvian, there are shortages of Latvian teachers. State-funded university education is in Latvian, except for the medical school and some classes for outgoing seniors. Incoming students whose native language is not Latvian must pass a Latvian-language entrance exam. It remains the Government's stated goal that all public schools eventually convert to Latvian as the language of instruction.

People with Disabilities

Latvia does not have a law banning discrimination against the disabled. The Government supports special schools for disabled persons. The Government does not enforce a 1993 law requiring buildings to be accessible to wheelchairs, and most buildings are not accessible to wheelchairs.

Section 6 Worker Rights

a. The Right of Association

Latvia's law on trade unions mandates that workers, except for the uniformed military, have the right to form and join labor unions of their own choosing. In 1993 about 50 percent of the work force belonged to unions; union membership continued to fall as workers left Soviet-era unions that include management or were laid off as Soviet-style factories failed. The Free Trades Union Federation of Latvia, the only significant labor union confederation, is nonpartisan, though some leaders ran as candidates for various smaller parties that failed to enter Parliament in the 1993 elections. Unions are free to affiliate internationally and are developing contacts with European labor unions and international labor union organizations.

The law does not limit the right to strike, and in December more than 10,000 Latvian teachers staged a 9-day strike, which was the first major labor action since the restoration of Latvian independence. Although many state-owned factories are on the verge of bankruptcy and seriously behind in wage payments, workers fear dismissal if they strike, and noncitizens fear that their participation in strikes may affect their residency status. While the law bans such dismissals, the Government has not effectively enforced these laws.

b. The Right to Organize and Bargain Collectively.

Labor unions have the right to bargain collectively and are largely free of government interference in their negotiations with employers. The law prohibits discrimination against union members and organizers. Some emerging private sector businesses, however, threaten to fire union members; these businesses usually provide better salaries and benefits than are available elsewhere. The Government's ability to protect the right to organize in the private sector is weak.

There are no export processing zones.

c. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The law prohibits forced or compulsory labor, and it is not practiced. Inspectors from the Welfare Ministry's labor department enforce the ban.

d. Minimum Age for Employment of Children

The statutory minimum age for employment of children is 15, although those aged between 13 and 15 may work in certain jobs after school hours. Children are required to attend school for 9 years. State authorities enforce child labor and school attendance laws. The law restricts employment of those under 18, for instance, by banning night shift or overtime work.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

In October the minimum monthly wage was set at about $50 (28 lats). The authorities estimate the poverty line to be about $120 (68 lats) per month. Many factories are virtually bankrupt and have reduced work hours.

The Labor Code provides for a mandatory 40-hour maximum workweek with at least one 24-hour rest period, 4 weeks of annual vacation, and a program of assistance to working mothers with small children. Latvian laws establish minimum occupational health and safety standards for the workplace, but these standards are frequently ignored.

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