Zdanoka wins case in human rights court

  • 2004-07-01
  • By Aaron Eglitis
RIGA - Leading left-wing politician Tatyana Zdanoka won a four-year long legal battle against the state on June 17 when the European Court of Human Rights ruled that her rights had been violated when she was barred from assuming political office.

Zdanoka was awarded 10,000 euros in pecuniary damages, 10,000 euros in legal fees and 2,236 lats (3,400 euros) for emotional suffering.
Zdanoka had been barred from standing in political posts for her actions following the independence movement, when she worked against the democratically elected government. At the time, the law banned former members of the Communist Party after Jan. 17, 1991, as well as former members of the KGB, from holding public office.
The court, which voted 5 - 2, took issue with the date delineated by the initial legislation, since the Communist Party was not made illegal until August 1991. Although many of Latvia's legal arguments seemed to rely on the need for the ban in cases of national security, the court failed to find Zdanoka a security threat.
The victory, hailed by Zdanoka supporters, was bitterly denounced by Latvian politicians and media, creating a maelstrom of discontent. As one of the most disliked politicians among ethnic Latvians, Zdanoka serves as a veritable lighting rod for nationalist-minded citizens.
Blaming what they perceive as a failure of a poorly argued legal case and ignorance of Latvian history, politicians and commentators spoke of possibly appealing to the grand chamber of 17 justices at the Strasbourg based court.
Immediately after the loss, Prime Minister Indulis Emsis called for an appeal, although he later said the action would only be sought if there were a clear chance of winning.
Justice Minister Vineta Muizniece openly called for an evaluation of Inga Reina, Latvia's representative to the court. Before the case Reina allegedly said that Latvia could not win against Zdanoka. Muizniece added that Latvia must explain more about the period under Soviet rule to the world.
If it so chooses, Latvia has three months from the time of the ruling to appeal.
"In truth, the court does not have a broad experience in directly examining these situations, and it would be important to give them another opportunity already in a wider structure to again analyze the arguments of both sides," Ineta Ziemele, a professor at the Riga Graduate School of Law, said in a June 28 editorial in the Diena daily.
Some Latvian politicians, however, didn't think the ruling would change the status quo.
Maris Grinblats, head of For Fatherland and Freedom, said there was a possibility to continue the restrictions and that the position of his party has not changed.
For others, particularly those who had called for the ban to be lifted, the court's findings didn't come as a surprise.
"Should Latvia appeal the outcome, it will most likely be the same," Martins Mits, a lecturer at the Riga Graduate School of Law, said.
Signs of an inevitable loss in this case were evident as early as last year when Latvian legal experts intervened to persuade Parliament not to impose a similar ban on EP elections. Even more recently, Parliament chose to bar former members of the KGB for another 10 years, but it did not include former communists.
The court looked at the initial banning after January 1991 and concluded that those who acted in January could not have foreseen the following actions in August, when Soviet troops moved against the elected governments of Latvia and Lithuania.
A compelling factor for the court was that Zdanoka had never been convicted of a crime associated with the attempted overthrow of the democratically elected government.
"It obviously would have played an important role," Latvia's representative to all human rights organizations, Inga Reina, said.
Strangely enough, the fact that Zdanoka was allowed to participate in the Europarliament election, in which she won a seat, was used as a legal argument defending the legislation before the court in Strasbourg.
While admitting that the U.S.S.R. was anti-democratic and totalitarian, the majority opinion chose not to take sides in the events of 1991. In the court's summary, although the judgment accepted the need for punitive punishment, it was not a never-ending one.