Article 103 of the Latvian Constitution states: The state shall protect the freedom of previously announced peaceful meetings, street processions, and pickets.
The law on rallies guarantees the freedom of peaceful and spontaneous assembly, setting procedures and restrictions necessary to enforce the law.
The Baltic Times asked two lawyers to comment on this law - Martins Mits, director of the University of Latvia Human Rights Institute, which explores human rights issues in Latvia, and Janis Butkevics, a lawyer for the Latvian National Human Rights Office, the state ombudsman institution, handling residents' complaints.
Despite the fact that the right to assemble is provided and legally protected in Latvia, the rally law contains a number of restrictions, many of which, according to Mits, are "problematic" in compliance with human rights standards.
"Transiting from the rigid Soviet to the flexible Western legal system, Latvia appeared to be weak in reachinig proportionality," said Mits. "This law, together with Article 174.3 of the administrative code, potentially is quite dangerous for the freedom of assembly in Latvia." This article stipulates punishment ranging from reprimand up to 100 lats fine, or administrative arrest up to 15 days, for breaking the rally law.
Latvia is still quite weak in balancing violation and appropriate punishment, said Mits: "There are many restrictions that are potentially dangerous from the human rights point of view. And if the law is treated literally, not considering constitutional and binding international regulations, human rights can be abused when the law is applied."
Before this law was enacted, permits to organize rallies were also required under the civil rights code, but in the early 90s, there were cases when the municipalities arbitrarily, sometimes for reasons of political bias, did not issue permits. A case against Riga City Council, which refused a permit and was found in violation, shows that the idea of civil society and this law application stabilized.
Butkevics said that the office received several complaints concerning this law, mostly from religious organizations, "however, the rally law stipulates that is does not concern religious events held in the organization's owned outdoor and indoor places," said Butkevics.
"One of the religious ceremonies for Hare Krishnas is a procession, which they always coordinate with the municipalities. But there was a case when quite a conservative municipality forbade them to walk in their town. Later on this municipality wanted to fine them but the case was resolved," he said.
Who can start the rally
Article 4 states who may not organize rallies. These are people under 18, those who are not permanent residents or citizens of Latvia, persons punished for premeditated crimes, and people administratively punished for previous violation of the rally law.
"I think that the very fact that a person who has lived in Latvia for a year cannot organize a rally or another event is quite problematic. I don't understand why such a restriction is needed," said Mits.
"It is clear, on the other hand, that the restriction was set with state security and public interests in mind, to prevent foreign citizens from coming here and starting some actions or agitation. But if a student, who came here for a year and received a terminated residence permit, is unsatisfied with something, he or she may not even initiate any demonstration or protest, but only participate. I think that in such case this restriction does not stand up to criticism."
The restriction for people who have committed a premeditated crime to organize a rally is also undemocratic," said Mits, "because this restriction is an additional punishment that is illegal in principle. I think this norm contradicts Article 102 of the Constitution."
Butkevics pointed out that although this restriction exists, it would be easier to find a person who would officially organize the rally and become its leader in one's stead, because there are no such restrictions for the participants of the event.
Getting official approval
Article 12.1 states that the organizers of a rally which complies with the requirements of the law don't need to receive state or municipality permit.
But Article 12.2 states that the organizer of the rally must submit an application to the local municipal government.
And Article 16 prohibits one to organize a rally unless the organizer has received a confirmative notification from the local government.
Mits confirmed that permit, mentioned in Article 12.1, and approving notification, Article 16, are one and the same.
"This means that although there is a contradiction in the law itself, the law requires one to get a permit before organizing an event," said Mits. "The request to get a permit does not contradict international human rights standards. The European Human Rights Court allowed this practice in the member states. But this contradiction definitely does not improve the coherence of the legal system."
"As I understand it, the application is needed only as a bit of information to the municipal government, to provide necessary security on the event," said Butkevics.
You had better not
Article 11.1 is a list of prohibitions you have to obey during the rally. You may not:
(1) carry guns and other objects, which by their character are devised or can be used for injuring people and damaging property,
(2) carry the tools of passive protection (helmets, bulletproof vests),
(3) hide your face under a mask,
(4) be dressed in a uniform, proclaiming in this way certain political views,
(5) use the former USSR, Latvian Soviet Socialist Republic or Nazi Germany symbols,
(6) act against moral norms,
(7) act in a way that endangers the safety and health of the rally participants.
"I totally agree that this list of restrictions is harsher than it should be. There are things that cannot be restricted, and there is also a question on how these norms will be interpreted," said Mits.
According to him, the norm contained in Article 11.1 (1) is exaggerated, the "can be used" part should be dropped. It is clear that you can injure someone with a pen or umbrella, said both human rights specialists.
The prohibition to carry helmets and bulletproof vests is another contradictory norm. On the one hand, it can be understood as to decrease possible resistance, on the other hand, freedom of speech includes not only what we say, but also clothes and appearance, said Mits.
This is an unnecessary restriction, said Mits, because according to this law, if environmentalists in their protests used gas masks they would be administratively punished.
"The same is applicable to restriction to wear uniform, it is an excessive restriction on freedom of expression," said Mits. "Why prohibit a person to wear, for instance, the hussar uniform to express whatever he wants? But obviously, this norm was devised based on the political background. I see no grounds in a democratic society to prohibit people to express their liking for the former regime by wearing a uniform. Why?" said Mits.
"There was one rally when students protested against civil service. Many were there in helmets and carried fake guns, but police treated it quite liberally," said Butkevics.
"Certainly, it is not normal, if it is in the law, but in that case everyone understood that it was just a parody," he said.
Theoretically, according to the law, one can be detained for 15 days for wearing a uniform helmet, but again, it would be an illegal administrative punishment, because the proportionality principle would be violated, said Mits.
You can pronounce...
Article 10.2 states that one cannot denounce the independence of the Latvian state, call for violent change of the political order in Latvia, urge to disobey laws, proclaim violence, national and racial hatred, outright fascism and communism ideology, propagate war, or glorify and advocate crimes and other violations of law.
"This is a very interesting question," said Mits. "Virtually, we cannot say that, in the world, communist ideology is totally equated to fascism. But we cannot deny that especially in the states, which suffered from the communist ideology, there is really sufficient ground to equate them. And Latvia is not the only state which has this restriction. This fact itself is not problematic, but, essentially, what is 'outright communism ideology'?"
"What should be banned - clear and high ideals of communism, or communism with a criminal bias, stemming from the totalitarian and authoritarian state regime, as it was in Stalin times?" said Mits.
"Generally, states have a rather large freedom to restrict freedom of expression concerning some historical events which affected a country," he said.