VILNIUS - A Vilnius court has cleared charges against Mayor Arturas Zuokas and several others for possible violations during the 2003 municipal elections in what was one of the strangest trials in Lithuania during recent years.
Three other defendants in the case, businessmen Andrius Janukonis, chairman of the Rubicon Group and financial supporter of Zuokas' Liberal and Center Union, a leading opposition party, Darius Lescinskas, and one employee, were also acquitted of similar charges.
All four men had been accused of bribing Vilnius City Council member Vilmantas Drema, unlawful imprisonment, gathering information on Drema's private life, as well as attempting to persuade the latter to vote in favor of Zuokas during the spring 2003 mayoral ballot.
At the time of the elections Drema reportedly behaved strangely, appearing and disappearing during a series of votes as he sought to maintain his senior council post. For this, he was supposedly coerced to cast his vote in favor of rival Arturas Zuokas.
During the trial, Zuokas and the three Rubicon Group officials fiercely denied all charges. The mayor claimed that all recorded telephone conversations presented as evidence "were taken out of context." He accused nearly everybody of being responsible for the trial and insisted on "bringing to justice" Special Investigation Service agents and Liberal Democratic politicians who, in his opinion, had invented the case against him.
"Instead of me, the court should try [Liberal Democrats] Juozas Imbrasas, Vytautas Galvonas, Ceslovas Kaminskas and the officers of the special services who fabricated this case," he said.
On the first day of the trial last week, judges heard Drema's testimony, which essentially refuted what prosecutors had presented as the centerpiece in their case: Drema claimed that he had never been bribed by Zuokas and Janukonis. He also denied that he had been forcibly taken from Vilnius to Moletai during the election in order to protect him from potentially harmful influence.
"I'm shocked. The case is based on emotions and subjectivity. And I think it is terrible to brake people's lives when there isn't real evidence," Drema told journalists after his testimony.
Court judges said that they had rarely seen a case where individuals were so reluctant to be identified as victims.
During the trial the court played telephone conversations between Zuokas and Janukonis, documenting their discussion to bribe Drema to vote for Zuokas. When the first attempt to bribe the politician failed, the mayor and the businessman began to plot alternatives.
The tapes suggested that Zuokas offered a 20,000 litas (5,792 euro) bribe to Drema, although the latter rejected it.
Drema was called both an alcoholic and a drug addict during the conversations, and the contract was described as a show.
As an architect, Drema was later asked to construct an entertainment park and, under Zuokas' orders, was paid 45,000 litas(1,300 euros) in advance.
Zuokas had little time to enjoy the news about the birth of his daughter on the morning of Feb. 3, as prosecutors proposed hours later that he be imprisoned for two years on probation with a 12,500 litas fine.
Nevertheless, the court ruled on Feb. 4 that there was no direct evidence to issue a guilty verdict. The court also doubted the authenticity of the evidence presented in the case, as it was exclusively based on telephone conversations wiretapped by the Special Investigation Service.