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U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 1993 - Latvia

Publisher United States Department of State
Publication Date 30 January 1994
Cite as United States Department of State, U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 1993 - Latvia, 30 January 1994, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/3ae6aa4710.html [accessed 1 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 regained its independence in 1991 after 50 years of Soviet rule. A parliamentary democracy, Latvia in June held its first free and fair elections in over 60 years, albeit under a restricted franchise (see Section 3), and in July reinstated its 1922 Constitution. Valdis Birkavs of the right-of-center coalition party Latvia's Way, which won 36 out of 100 seats in the Saeima (parliament), became Prime Minister. The Saeima in July elected Guntis Ulmanis of the Farmers' Union as President (head of state). The Prime Minister, as chief executive, and the Cabinet are responsible for day-to-day government operations. A 1991 Constitutional Law, which supplements and expands on the 1922 Constitution, provides for basic rights and freedoms.

Latvian authorities are gradually replacing the Soviet-trained police; however, there are recurrent allegations of corruption among police and security forces. The Home Guard, a voluntary military reserve, assists in police patrols but has no arrest powers. The regular military services have yet to establish internal disciplinary procedures in accordance with democratic norms. The Latvian Republic Security Service was involved in at least two unsuccessful attempts to pressure the media. As of the end of September, 13,000 Russian troops remained in Latvia. Latvia insisted that all Russian troops leave the country as soon as possible; the Russians proposed that most troops leave in 1994, with a remaining presence at a missile early-warning radar at Skrunda. Although negotiations continued, no agreement had been reached by year's end.

Latvia made progress in stabilizing its economy and pursuing market-oriented reforms. Its currency was strong enough to appreciate steadily in a free foreign currency market. In 1993 inflation was 35 percent, and a foreign trade surplus was expected. Latvia's economy had contracted substantially since the country regained independence in 1991 but appeared to stabilized in the second half of 1993. A booming private sector accounted for about a quarter of economic activity, but unemployment rose to an estimated 8 percent. As of September 1, private farms and gardens covered 54 percent of Latvia's farmland, while privatized collective farms accounted for much of the rest.

The previous parliament, elected under Soviet law, deferred action on implementing legislation regarding naturalization and citizenship. It did not pass a naturalization law, arguing it had to await a legislature elected by Latvian citizens under Latvian law. Due to the policy of Russification during the Soviet occupation, ethnic Latvians make up only 52 percent of the total population, and none of Latvia's seven largest cities has an ethnic Latvian majority. The possibility that non-Latvians who entered the country while it was under Soviet rule and who had no proven affiliation to Latvia could control the balance of political power made citizenship and naturalization issues particularly sensitive for many Latvians. The Government decided to schedule elections without resolving these issues. The new Parliament deliberated on several draft naturalization laws, and final passage was expected in 1994. The draft naturalization bill of the Latvia's Way Party passed the legislature in November in its first reading; the bill is expected to be modified before its second reading. In the context of the deliberations, the Latvian Government has pledged to submit a draft of the naturalization legislation to the Council of Europe for review by legal experts.

In October the Government directed authorities to close down three small organizations that allegedly had plotted a coup against Latvia in connection with the October insurrection in Moscow. Prison conditions are so substandard that they threaten the health of prisoners. Juvenile detainees suffer from disease and are subject to violence and sexual abuse (see Section 1.c.).

RESPECT FOR HUMAN RIGHTS

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

a. Political and Other Extrajudicial Killing

No such killings by Latvian authorities are known to have occurred.

b. Disappearance

There were no known instances of political abductions or disappearances.

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

Torture is prohibited under the Constitution, and there were no indications that such abuses occurred.

There were credible reports of beatings of detainees and prison inmates, including juveniles. Sanitation facilities in some cases are inadequate, and shortages of blankets and medical care persist. Poor ventilation and inadequate lighting are common. Under Soviet law, prisoners awaiting trial were not allowed to send mail, and in general this prohibition has been continued.

The situation for some imprisoned children was egregious. Credible reports indicate that children 14 years old are kept in filthy conditions and suffer from disease and deprivation. Although detention is supposed to be no longer than 6 months, there were cases of children being kept in prison for up to a year and a half, and even reports of instances of juveniles being placed in solitary confinement. Both boys and girls are subject to violence and sexual abuse, and in one case a 15-year-old boy was reportedly strangled to death by his cellmates. There have been slight improvements in conditions since early 1993. A new head of the Riga Central Prison is to assume duties in early 1994. One of the main problems continues to be a lack of resources.

d. Arbitrary Arrest, Detention, or Exile

There were no known instances of arbitrary arrest or exile. Arrests are made on the basis of a prosecutorial warrant. 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 Procurator'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. The court reviews fulfillment of these requirements at trial.

e. Denial of a Fair Public Trial

Latvia is reorganizing its courts along democratic lines and adding regional courts. For more serious criminal cases, two lay judges join the professional judge in making a determination. The law envisions that capital cases will be heard by a 12-member jury, but no procedures exist to put this into effect. There are no reports of judges having been improperly influenced by the Government.

Trials may be closed if state secrets might be revealed, but there is no known instance of this provision being used since Latvia regained independence. 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.

During the August 1991 Soviet coup attempt, former Latvian Communist party chief Alfred Rubiks proclaimed himself head of the so-called National Salvation Committee, which is accused of attempting to seize power in Latvia. At year's end, he was on trial for his part in the attempted coup. Some observers criticized the 2-year delay between his detention and the commencement of the trial, during which time he was denied bail. Rubiks was elected to the new Parliament, which deferred seating him pending the outcome of his trial.

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

According to the Constitutional Law, a judge's order must be obtained to intercept mail, telephone calls, or other forms of communication. In practice, however, the law in force on investigations allows wiretaps and searches on a prosecutorial warrant.

Section 2 Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Speech and Press

Latvia generally enjoyed freedom of speech and press throughout 1993.

The Constitutional Law contains provisions on free speech and press, and the 1991 Latvian press law prohibits censorship of the press or other mass media. Both Latvian and Russian- language papers printed a wide range of criticism. The media actively covered all aspects of the spring election campaign.

In August the Baltic News Service (BNS) and the country's largest Russian-language newspaper, Sm-Sevodnya, revealed that government security officers had pressured them on two occasions to "cooperate" in government investigations and to publish information provided by the Government. BNS and the newspaper appealed to international media organizations to assist them in resisting such pressure. The Government disavowed the actions of the security officers involved but maintained no laws had been broken.

In September Parliament began considering drafts of two laws on the print and broadcast media. Drafts contain provisions that, if enacted, could hamper freedom of the press. Latvian libel law remains modeled on Soviet libel law and has the same standards of proof for libel against public as against private figures. In November a court awarded damages in libel suits by former Prime Minister Godmanis against two newspapers. Several other papers settled out of court with Godmanis. In the most serious case, the court awarded damages of $1,666 (1,000 Lats) to Godmanis against the country's largest newspaper for an August editorial that accused the former Prime Minister of having acted more in the interest of a private company (in which he was alleged to have an interest) than in Latvia's national security. The suit was seen by most publishers as an attempt to intimidate the media.

By 1993, virtually all newspapers in Latvia had been privatized, but overall circulation figures continued to drop due to the weakening economy. Despite the overall decline in circulation figures, a number of new publications have appeared, and there has been no loss of variety of political views.

In 1993 the number of independent television and radio broadcasters continued to grow. The independents include both Latvian and Russian-language stations. Two cable television companies compete for subscribers in Riga; the number of cable television subscribers continues to grow.

There are no restrictions on academic freedom.

b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association.

Latvian authorities legally do not have the power to prohibit public gatherings but may change the time and place, for example, on the grounds of fear of public disorder. In 1993 numerous mass meetings and political demonstrations took place without government interference. The Constitution provides for the right to associate in public organizations. Over 20 political parties participated in the June elections.

In October the Cabinet directed authorities to close three small organizations that allegedly had plotted a coup against the Latvian Government in connection with the October insurrection in Moscow, including the Union of Communists. That organization and the like-minded Union for the Protection of Veterans' Rights have sued the Government for its refusal to register them as legal organizations. Trials were scheduled to begin in December. Communist parties are illegal in Latvia. The only extant group of Communists is the politically insignificant Union of Communists. Although numerous small groupings have formed, resident Russians have not coalesced into any large, distinct political movements.

c. Freedom of Religion

The Government does not interfere in the exercise of religious freedom. The dominant faiths are Lutheran, Catholic, and Eastern Orthodox. Foreign evangelists are permitted to hold meetings and proselytize. Religious groups are not required to register with the Government, but the documents for incorporation as a legal entity must be filed by members who are residents of Latvia.

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. The number of Latvians traveling abroad has increased dramatically over the past several years. Some noncitizens may require reentry permits. Exit visas or invitations are not required.

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 in June held its first free and fair elections since 1931 with the participation of 23 political parties representing a broad political spectrum. Eight parties won seats in the Saeima, and 90 percent of eligible voters participated, using a secret ballot. As citizenship and naturalization questions were not resolved before the elections, there was no mechanism for residents of Latvia who were not citizens to participate in the elections. Parliamentary representation in Latvia is not based on ethnic identity, and ethnic Russians serve in the Cabinet and as members of Parliament.

The coalition Latvia's Way obtained 36 of 100 seats in the Saeima and formed a parliamentary coalition with the Farmers' Union (12 seats). The Saeima approved Valdis Birkavs of Latvia's Way as Prime Minister and in July elected Guntis Ulmanis of the Farmers' Union as President (head of state). The next elections are scheduled for October 1995.

In November Parliament approved in the first reading the draft naturalization bill submitted by the ruling Latvia's Way Party. The bill includes a language requirement, with an exemption for senior citizens, and a 10-year residency requirement. The draft includes a provision that the Government, with parliamentary approval, would set quotas each year for naturalization. Parliamentary committees are expected to suggest many changes to the bill before its second reading. Latvia is working with human rights experts from the Council of Europe on naturalization legislation and has pledged to submit a draft to international organization human rights experts before final passage. The law barring naturalization until Russian troops are withdrawn remains in effect, but its standing is subject to continuing deliberations on the draft naturalization law.

There have been documented instances of abuses by the Latvian Department of Immigration and Citizenship against residents who are not Latvian citizens. In some instances, decisions by the Department of Immigration and Citizenship were overturned by the Court, but the Department continued to refuse to carry out the Court's orders. The Government in December relieved the head of the Department of Immigration and Citizenship of his duties, and a new head is expected to take up responsibilities in early 1994.

At the end of 1993, Parliament was debating a controversial law that would determine whether noncitizens would have the right to vote in local elections.

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

There are several organizations that transmit concerns raised by local ethnic Russians to the courts and the press, but there are no domestic human rights organizations as such in Latvia.

The Government welcomes visits by human rights organizations and received delegations from, among others, the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE), the Council of Europe, and the United Nations. In September the Government granted permission to the CSCE to establish a resident mission in the country to "address citizenship issues and other related matters." The mission will also report on "developments relevant to the full realization of CSCE principles, norms, and commitments."

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 all nationalities.

Women

Women possess the same legal rights as men. The law requires that women may not be hired for certain jobs considered dangerous; beyond this, employment discrimination is banned. In reality, given the extreme competition for jobs and the potential cost of legally mandated child birth benefits, women frequently face hiring and pay discrimination, especially in the emerging private sector. Women apparently have not brought any discrimination suits before the courts.

Adult prostitution has not been outlawed; it is increasing and is often linked with organized crime. Reliable statistics on domestic violence against women are unavailable. Some cultural factors have fostered domestic violence, often associated with alcohol abuse. Observers suggest that police are sometimes reluctant to arrest in such cases since the victims later often drop charges. No programs exist specifically to assist victims of domestic abuse, though normal government-provided health care and disability benefits apply.

The women's advocacy groups that exist are still small. They are involved in finding employment for women, lobbying for increased social benefits, and opposing army hazing of 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. For a discussion of physical and other abuse of children, see Section 1.c.

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, but the majority of nonethnic Latvians cannot fully participate in the civic life of the country. Noncitizens were active in political parties during the election campaign, although they did not have the right to vote.

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 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 disenfranchised and that the language law discriminates against them, although there are no reports of widespread dismissals among management, teachers, or other sectors. In the case of the police force, which is predominantly made up of noncitizen ethnic Russians, non-Latvian speaking police officers were given 2 years to learn Latvian.

Some ethnic Russians have also complained of de facto discrimination resulting from Latvia's property laws, which limit land ownership to citizens. 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 Russian officers for apartments assigned them by the Soviet military, though at least some seem to find ways around 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 be taught 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.

Jewish community leaders report anti-Semitism is not a major problem in Latvia and the government has been generally supportive of efforts to rejuvenate the Jewish community.

People with Disabilities

Latvia does not have a law banning discrimination against the disabled. The Government supports special schools for disabled persons. A law requiring buildings to be accessible to wheelchairs took effect on January 1, 1993. Most buildings, however, 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 the fall of 1993, about 50 percent of the work force belonged to unions; union membership is falling as workers leave Soviet-era unions that include management or are laid off as Soviet-style factories fail. 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. 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. Latvia saw almost no strikes in 1993. 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's ability to enforce these laws is weak.

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 pay better salaries and benefits than are available elsewhere. The Government's ability to protect the right to organize in the private sector is weak.

No export processing zones exist in Latvia.

c. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

Forced or compulsory labor is banned and 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 13 may work in certain jobs away from school hours. Children are required to attend school for 9 years. Child labor and school attendance laws are enforced by state authorities through inspections. The law restricts employment of those under 18, for instance, by banning night shift or overtime work.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

As of the end of 1993, the minimum monthly wage was set at about $24 (15 lats). Latvian authorities estimate the poverty line to be about $83 (50 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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