Released by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor
March 8, 2006
Latvia is a parliamentary democracy with a population of approximately 2.3 million. The 2002 elections for the 100-seat parliament were free and fair. The 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. The following human rights problems were reported:
- police brutality
- poor prison conditions and overcrowding
- lengthy pretrial detention
- judicial corruption
- obstacles to due process
- anti-Semitic violence
- violence against women
- child abuse and child prostitution
- trafficking in women and minors
- racially motivated violence
- societal and occasional 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
There were no reports that the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings.
There were no reports of politically motivated disappearances.
c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
The law prohibits such practices; however, there were reports that government officials employed them.
The Latvian Center for Human Rights and Ethnic Studies (LCHRES) received allegations of severe abuse of persons in custody. During a ward search in July, 11 inmates at Valmiera prison sustained serious injuries, including broken ribs, consistent with the use of police batons. Some of the injured did not receive medical attention for 12 to 48 hours.
Accurate statistics on reports of police brutality were unavailable. On February 18, the state police initiated a criminal case against two police officers who beat two individuals apprehended for public drunkenness. Their trial was ongoing at year's end.
LCHRES expressed concern that victims underreported incidents of police brutality. In February 2004 LCHRES conducted a study in which it operated a hot line to collect allegations of police brutality from anonymous callers. Over a 3-day period, LCHRES received 283 complaints regarding police misconduct, 130 of which referred to police brutality. During the year the Latvian National Human Rights Office (NHRO) received 11 written and 23 verbal complaints regarding misconduct. The NHRO reported that the Ministry of Interior and police officials were cooperative in resolving complaints of police brutality, and the NHRO arranged for meetings between complainants and relevant law enforcement agencies where, according to NHRO officials, the Ministry of Interior collected testimony that it used to identify police officials guilty of abuse.
Prison and Detention Center Conditions
Prison conditions remained poor. Prisons also continued to be overcrowded; nonetheless, overcrowding declined somewhat from 2004. Prison hospitals and general medical care were major concerns. According to a report, a high rate of attempted suicide, resulting from a lack of psychiatric care, was a problem. There were 28 short-term facilities designed to hold detainees less than 72 hours. Both the Council of Europe and the NHRO stated that conditions such as poor ventilation and damp, dark, and unsanitary cells in at least half of these centers violated human rights standards. Unlike in the previous year, there were no reports of abuses in pretrial detention facilities.
The government permitted independent human rights observers to visit prisons and detention centers. During the year domestic groups, such as LCHRES, closely monitored prison conditions.
d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention
The law prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention, and the government generally observed these prohibitions.
Role of the Police and Security Apparatus
The security forces consist of the national police, the special immigration police, the border guards, and other services, who are subordinate to the Ministry of Interior; municipal police who are under local government control; the Military Counterintelligence Service and a protective service, which are under the Ministry of Defense; and the national guard, an element of the armed forces. Allegations of corruption and bribery within law enforcement ranks were frequent and affected the public's perception of police effectiveness. According to a report during the year by the anticorruption nongovernmental organization (NGO) Providus, 57 members of the security forces were convicted of corruption-related offenses between 2003 and 2004: 42 members of the state police, 7 members of municipal police forces, and 8 members of the border guards. In the first half of the year the Anti-Corruption Bureau (ACB) initiated cases against the following members of the security forces: three members of the Riga city main police board for allegedly demanding and receiving a bribe to avoid inspections from a businessman; a member of the traffic police for his role in an alleged attempt to falsify blood-alcohol tests; and a police inspector for extortion and bribery.
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 with 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 a detainee within 72 hours after arrest, which was followed in practice. Charges must be filed within 10 days of arrest, and this was followed in practice. 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. If indigent an attorney is provided by the government. Detainees were allowed prompt access to family members. These rights are subject to judicial review but only at the time of trial.
There were no reports of political detainees.
The law limits pretrial detention to no more than 18 months from the first filing of the case; however, lengthy pretrial detention was a problem. Persons in pretrial detention had limited contact with outside NGOs or family and suffered from considerably worse living conditions than detainees in general.
e. Denial of Fair Public Trial
The law provides 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 regarding constitutional issues at the request of state institutions or individuals who believe that their constitutional rights were violated. For more serious criminal cases, two lay assessors join the professional judge on the bench at the district and regional levels.
Corruption in the judicial system was widespread. Through June the ACB had initiated 29 criminal cases against various government officials, compared with 35 in all of 2004 and 21 in 2003. As of June the ACB had passed 21 criminal cases to the Prosecutor's Office for prosecution of 41 persons, including police officers and deputy candidates in municipal elections. In August the justice minister fired three bailiffs following their indictment by the prosecutor general for fraud, abuse of power, and bribery. In 2004 the ACB arrested and launched a criminal case against a prosecutor for corrupt practices. The prosecutor general dismissed the accused prosecutor, and the criminal case was ongoing at year's end. During the year the ACB reported that it had received 114 complaints against members of the bailiff service and the prosecutor general announced criminal cases against seven bailiffs. A time-consuming judicial process and a shortage of judges overloaded the courts.
Trials generally are public; however, they may be closed if government secrets might be revealed or to protect the interests of minors. Juries were used in some cases, but not in others. All defendants have the right to be present at their trial and to consult with an attorney in a timely manner, and the government provided funds to indigent defendants for this purpose. Defendants have the right to read all charges, confront all witnesses, and may call witnesses and offer evidence to support their case. Defendants and their attorneys have access to government-held evidence relevant to their cases. Defendants enjoy a presumption of innocence and can make multiple appeals.
There were no reports of political prisoners.
f. Arbitrary Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence
The law prohibits such actions, and the government generally respected these prohibitions in practice.
2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Speech and Press
The law provides for freedom of speech and of the press, and the government generally respected these rights in practice; however, although the press law prohibits censorship of the press or other mass media, the media law contains a number of restrictive provisions regulating the content and language of broadcasts.
Primary terrestrially broadcast radio and television stations are required to use the state language, Latvian, and secondary terrestrial broadcasters are allotted up to 20 percent of total broadcast time for non-Latvian language programming, which should be simultaneously translated using subtitles. However, the laws only apply to terrestrial broadcasts. Non-Latvian language broadcasts were available on cable.
The independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views without restriction.
There were no government restrictions on the Internet or academic freedom.
b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association
Freedom of Assembly
The law provides for freedom of assembly, and the authorities may not prohibit public gatherings; 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 fear of public disorder. The law also requires protesters to remain specified distances from foreign diplomatic missions, the parliament, the Prosecutor's Office, and certain other public institutions. Independent human rights organizations argued that the law's provisions were contradictory and confusing. Nevertheless, numerous demonstrations took place peacefully and without government interference during the year. However, a gay pride parade in July had its permit approved, revoked, and then reinstated.
Freedom of Association
The law provides 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. Nevertheless, many nationalist organizations using fascist-era symbols, slogans, and rhetoric operated openly. Noncitizens may join and form political parties. Every party must have at least two hundred citizens as members in order to register. At least half of the total membership must be citizens.
c. Freedom of Religion
The law provides for freedom of religion, and the government generally respected this right in practice; however, bureaucratic problems for "nontraditional" religions persisted.
There is no state religion, but the government distinguishes between "traditional" (Lutheran, Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Old Believers, Baptist, and Jewish) and "new" religions. The "new" religions were subject to bureaucratic regulations and paperwork requirements not applicable to "traditional" religions and have more difficulties purchasing property.
Although the government does not require the registration of religious groups, the law accords religious organizations certain rights and privileges when they register, such as a separate legal status for owning property or for other financial transactions, as well as tax benefits for donors.
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, and the government has denied the applications of splinter groups on this basis.
Foreign evangelists and missionaries were only permitted to hold meetings and to proselytize if domestic religious organizations invited them to conduct such activities. Foreign religious denominations criticized this provision.
The law provides that only representatives of the Lutheran, Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Old Believers, Baptist, and Jewish religions may teach religion to public school students who volunteer to take the classes.
Societal Abuses and Discrimination
During the year there were a few reports of low-level societal harassment and discrimination against resident missionaries of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, including a few reports of violence such as kicking and pushing down stairs.
The Jewish community numbers approximately 9,500 and is largely secular and Russian speaking. There was one synagogue operating in Riga. In April the Orthodox rabbi of Riga was accosted in the city's main square by a group of young men and subjected to anti-Semitic epithets. Suspects were detained and at least one has been charged with hooliganism. During the year the president made several public speeches and appearances commemorating the Holocaust and criticizing manifestations of anti-Semitism.
For a more detailed discussion, see the 2005 International Religious Freedom Report.
d. Freedom of Movement Within the Country, Foreign Travel, Emigration, and Repatriation
The law provides for these rights, and the government generally respected them in practice.
The law stipulates that noncitizens are prohibited from owning land in the border zones.
The law prohibits forced exile, and the government did not employ it.
Protection of Refugees
The law provides for the granting of 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. In practice, the government provided some protection against refoulement, the return of persons to a country where they feared persecution. However, there were reports that authorities systematically turned away refugees and asylum seekers at the border, particularly at the border with Belarus. The government granted refugee status or asylum.
During the year the government did not provide temporary protection to individuals who may not qualify as refugees under the 1951 convention and the 1967 protocol.
The government cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and other humanitarian organizations in assisting refugees.
Illegal immigrants held at the Olaine detention camp did not have access to information about their rights, including their right to apply for asylum, and had limited recreation opportunities. In August seven Somali refugees were detained at Olaine detention camp. A court declared them to be illegal immigrants, but NGOs and a former government official claimed that the Somalis were not made aware of their legal rights or offered an opportunity to request asylum. In December the Somalis appealed the court ruling, and the case was pending at year's end.
3. Respect for Political Rights: The Right of Citizens to Change Their Government
The law provides citizens with the right to change their government peacefully, and citizens exercised this right in practice through periodic, free, and fair elections held on the basis of universal suffrage.
Elections and Political Participation
Free and fair elections for parliament were held in 2002, and the parliament elected the president in June 2003. In March nationwide local elections were held; although largely free and fair, vote-buying scandals resulted in the election outcomes being challenged in the cities of Jurmala and overturned in Rezekne. Both incidents prompted ACB investigations. By the middle of the year, the ACB had begun criminal proceedings against five individuals. The cases were pending at year's end.
The election law prohibits the holding of elective office by persons who remained active in the Communist Party or various other pro-Soviet organizations after January 1991 or who worked for such institutions as the former Soviet Committee for State Security.
There were 21 women in the 100-member parliament, and there were 4 women in the 18-member cabinet of ministers. The president was a woman. The speaker of the parliament was a woman.
Nonethnic Latvians, including ethnic Russians and Poles, served in various elected bodies. According to the parliament's website, there were 22 members of minorities in the 100-seat parliament, including 15 ethnic Russians, 1 ethnic Pole, 1 Jew, 1 Karelian, and 4 others who declined to list their ethnicity.
Government Corruption and Transparency
There was a widespread perception of corruption throughout all levels of the government. Through June the ACB initiated 21 criminal cases, compared with 35 in all of 2004.
A cabinet of ministers' regulation provides a mechanism for public access to government information, and the government generally provided access in practice.
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 were generally cooperative and responsive to their views.
5. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons
The law prohibits discrimination due to race, gender, language, or disability; however, violence against women and racial minorities, societal discrimination against women and homosexuals, child abuse, and trafficking in persons were problems.
Violence against women, including spousal abuse, is against the law. Although domestic violence was a significant problem, the government did not effectively enforce the law, in large part, because abuse was underreported. Victims of abuse often were 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, sometimes did not take domestic violence cases seriously, and that the police were often reluctant to make arrests in such cases.There were no shelters designed specifically for battered or abused women. There are no dedicated rape or assault hot lines; however, NGOs managed two crisis hot lines.
The law specifically criminalizes rape but does not recognize spousal rape. A local NGO, the Skalbes Crisis Center reported that rape laws were ineffective and stated that rapes were underreported due to a tendency by police to blame the victim.
Prostitution is legal, although procuring is not. Prostitution was widespread and often was linked to organized crime. During the year large increases in sex tourism were reported.
Trafficking in women for sexual exploitation was a problem (see section 5, Trafficking).
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 coming forth publicly with 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, especially in the emerging private sector. The law also prohibits women from performing "hard jobs or jobs having unhealthy conditions," which are specified in a list agreed upon by the cabinet and labor unions.
The law prohibits work and pay discrimination based on gender and requires employers to set equal pay for equal work. Some local NGOs questioned the ability of the government to enforce gender equality laws, claiming that the police agencies responsible for enforcing such laws lacked the skills to do so.
The government was committed to children's rights and welfare; however, constitutional provisions on children and the law on the rights of the child were not enforced fully in practice.
Primary schooling is free, compulsory, and universal through the 9th grade (between the ages of 7 and 16) and free through the 12th grade (age 18).
Access to health care was universal, and there were no reports of discrimination based on sex.
Abandonment and child abuse, including sexual abuse, were common. NGOs reported that laws against child abuse were enforced effectively. Law enforcement authorities have won court suits to remove children from abusive parents and secured convictions in child molestation cases. Children who were from families that were unable to care for them had access to government-funded boarding schools that provided adequate living conditions; however, these schools offered lower educational standards than regular state schools.
Child prostitution remained a problem. During the year the police reported that, due to the imposition of severe penalties for rape and sexual exploitation of minors, the reported incidence of child prostitution sharply declined. According to the police, previous estimates that 12 to 15 percent of prostitutes were between the ages of 8 and 18 were exaggerated and during the year noted that there were only a few reported cases. Nevertheless, legal protections for offenses committed against children were rarely enforced in the case of child prostitutes.
Trafficking in young girls for sexual exploitation abroad remained a problem (see section 5, Trafficking).
Trafficking in Persons
The law prohibits trafficking in persons; however, trafficking in women and minors to, from, and within the country was a problem.
The law specifically prohibits "trafficking in persons"; however, most traffickers continue to be prosecuted under a statute that prohibits sending persons abroad for sexual exploitation. The law provides for sentences of up to 15 years' imprisonment for trafficking in persons and for sentences of up to 6 years' imprisonment for sending persons abroad for sexual exploitation. During the year the number of investigations into crimes related to trafficking increased. During the first 8 months of the year, a total of 22 persons were convicted; 17 of them received conditional sentences, which are similar to probation. Although there are severe penalties under the law against trafficking in persons, the courts applied this section of the law only in one case. In other cases those sections of the law that criminalize pimping and alien smuggling for sexual exploitation were applied by the courts, imposing less severe penalties.
Cooperation between the border guards, police, and NGOs increased and contributed to effective control of the border areas. International cooperation in investigations and prosecutions was well established with Denmark and Germany. In comparison with previous years, cooperation with Swedish, Lithuanian, Estonian, and Finnish law enforcement agencies improved. The Border Guard Service managed an information database used to reveal trafficking trends.
At year's end the government had not fully implemented the National Action Plan to Combat Trafficking in Persons, which was adopted in March 2004. The Ministry of Interior had primary responsibility for antitrafficking activities. In late 2004 parliament amended the law to expand the definition of trafficking in persons to include internal trafficking. Parliament also made sending persons abroad for sexual exploitation a felony, increasing the penalty under the law to six years' imprisonment, and made the victim of the crime eligible for special protection. In addition the working group made a government-administered shelter for immigrants and refugees available for trafficking victims, developed an antitrafficking curriculum for high schools, and initiated a study of the problem of sex tourism in the country. However, the government lacked the funds to implement much of the action plan.
The country was primarily a source and transit point for trafficked victims. The main countries of destination were Germany, Spain, Great Britain, Italy, Switzerland, and the Nordic countries. There were reports, including from the European Police Service, that trafficking in women and girls for sexual exploitation abroad increased. Women, including well-educated women, homeless teens, and minors graduating from orphanage boarding schools, were among those most at risk to be trafficked. Males were also trafficked. Trafficking within the country also occurred, and women from poor districts were often trafficked for sexual exploitation to Riga, Liepaja, and Ventspils. However, no criminal cases were initiated for trafficking in persons within the country.
Traffickers, primarily organized criminal groups, usually lured victims through false offers of employment for jobs such as dancers, bartenders, and babysitters in European countries. A large number of victims were drawn from the economically depressed areas of the country's eastern regions. While some victims were recruited through job advertisements or modeling and travel agencies, most victims were solicited through direct contact with traffickers. Traffickers often recruited their victims at cafes and clubs, and victims themselves recruited new victims for the traffickers.
There were some assistance programs, principally organized by NGOs and the International Organization for Migration (IOM); however, the government recognized a need for improvement. Marta Centers continued its operations to educate adolescents regarding trafficking issues. The Council of Youth Health Ceners (CYHC) organized local working groups to combat trafficking in Daugavpils and Liepaja. During the year the CYHC and the Judicial Training Center carried out projects to educate judges and prosecutors about the severe nature of human trafficking. The IOM and several NGOs sponsored conferences on trafficking, and there were multiple antitrafficking education campaigns. In addition, the IOM sponsored a campaign warning young people in the Baltic states of the dangers of accepting attractive employment offers from abroad. The IOM and other NGOs carried out a project for school teachers and invited them to screenings of the film Lilya 4-Ever, which depicts the life of a young trafficking victim.
The government acknowledged its responsibilities for the protection of trafficking victims in the National Action Plan to Combat Trafficking in Persons; however, lack of resources and competing budget priorities have limited its ability to provide direct assistance to trafficking victims. Currently, most assistance to victims comes from local NGOs and IOM. Marta Centers, operating in cooperation with the IOM and partially funded by foreign grants, offered assistance to trafficking victims in the form of crisis counseling, professional referrals, and reintegration assistance. The government provided its Center for Asylum Seekers as a shelter for trafficking victims. At year's end only 17 victims had sought assistance.
Persons with Disabilities
The law prohibits discrimination against persons with disabilities in employment, education, access to health care, or in the provision of other state services, and the government effectively enforced these provisions. The law mandates access to buildings for persons with disabilities; however, most buildings were not accessible.
In 2003 the LCHRES and the Mental Disability Advocacy Center stated that "the review procedure for detention on grounds of mental disability fails to meet human rights standards, the criteria for compulsory admission into psychiatric institutions are too broad, and the provisions on consent to treatment does not meet international principles." The NHRO further stated that committed patients suffered abridged rights that prevented them from corresponding with relatives and placed arbitrary restrictions on freedom of communication.
The Ministry of Social Integration and the National Human Rights Office is responsible for the protection of minority rights.
During the year attacks against racial minorities were a problem.
During the year there were four reported violent attacks against racial minorities, including one against the head of the country's African-Latvian community NGO and another against a Sri Lankan medical student. The NGO leader's attackers chased him through the city and threatened to kill him before bystanders intervened and called the police. No attacks resulted in death. Misdemeanor charges were brought against some of the perpetrators. In response to these incidents, the president, prime minister, social integration minister, and foreign minister all spoke out against racism and racist violence. The interior ministry has reached out to NGOs and minority groups and adjusted its police patrolling patterns to counter racist violence. There was limited improvement in the effectiveness of prosecution of such crimes; most perpetrators were charged with petty hooliganism, a misdemeanor offense. The Ministry of Interior has begun educating the police force about hate crimes and the proper methods of investigation.
The Roma faced high levels of unemployment and illiteracy, as well as widespread societal discrimination.
Other Societal Abuses and Discrimination
Societal violence and discrimination against homosexuals was a problem. For example, in July the Riga city government, after coming under criticism from the prime minister, various political parties, and religious groups, revoked the permit that it had issued for the country's first gay pride parade. Although a local court eventually reinstated the permit, the prime minister criticized the planned parade, stating that the country is founded on Christian ethics and that holding the parade would be inappropriate. The transport minister called for the removal of Riga's mayor for complying with the court order.
6. Worker Rights
a. The Right of Association
The law entitles workers, except for the uniformed military and police, to form and join unions of their choice, without previous authorization or excessive requirements, and workers exercised this right in practice. As of 2003 approximately 18 percent of the workforce was unionized.
b. The Right to Organize and Bargain Collectively
The law allows unions to conduct their activities without interference, and the government protected this right in practice. The law provides for collective bargaining, and workers exercised this right in practice. The law recognizes the right to strike, subject to limitations including prolonged pre-strike procedures and prohibition of some types of solidarity strikes and political strikes. Workers generally exercised the right to strike during the year, but 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 the professions forbidden from striking may use in lieu of striking. There are no special laws or exemptions from regular labor laws in the four special economic zones.
c. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor
The law prohibits forced or compulsory labor, including by children; however, there were reports that such practices occurred (see section 5).
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 effectively implemented these laws and policies in practice. The law restricts employment of those under the age of 18 by prohibiting night shift or overtime work. The statutory minimum age for employment of children is age 15, although children between the ages of 13 and 15 may work in certain jobs outside of school hours.
Children were trafficked for sexual exploitation, and child prostitution was also a problem (see section 5).
Inspectors from the Ministry of Welfare's State Labor Inspectorate were responsible for enforcing the child labor laws, and they enforced the laws effectively.
e. Acceptable Conditions of Work
The legally mandated monthly minimum wage of approximately $146 (80 lats) did not provide a decent standard of living for a worker and family. As of September the actual average monthly wage was $427 (246 lats). The State Revenue Service is responsible for enforcing the minimum wage regulations, and they effectively enforced them.
The law provides for a mandatory 40-hour maximum workweek with at least one 42-hour rest period weekly. There is a prohibition on excessive compulsory overtime. Premium pay is one of the ways workers may be remunerated for overtime.
The laws establish 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.