RIGA - In a landmark ruling on Jan. 30, a Latvian court handed two men short prison sentences for committing a hate crime. This was the first time in Latvia that perpetrators of a hate crime have been sent to prison, and the second hate crime conviction overall.
The story was sadly familiar. In June last year, Pierre Dusabiman was verbally abused while entering a store in downtown Riga. As he was walking out of the store, defendants Andris Ziedens and Romans Vilums hit Dusabiman with a bottle and began to kick him.
Denis Grigoriyev, a student at the police academy, saw the assault and rushed to intervene. He helped Dusabimin to his feet, and together they chased down the perpetrators in a taxi, detaining them until the police arrived.
Grigoriyev has been nominated for a special award for his actions.
Police originally filed the case as hooliganism but later changed the charge to racism after pressure from human rights groups.
Vilums received a sentence of eight months in prison, and Ziedens was sentenced to six months.
Anhelita Kamenska, a researcher at the Latvian Center for Human Rights, said that the sentences mark a significant change from those in earlier cases of hate crime.
"Punishment levied has been mild. Either the case was closed or people received warnings," she said. "Basically there was not enough of a message by law enforcement or authorities that these types of crimes are not to be tolerated."
Welcoming the more severe sentences, she said, "Our sense is that [these rulings] could be dissuasive for others."
George Steele, vice-chairman of Afrolat, an NGO representing Africans and black people in Latvia, acknowledged this ruling as "a big step." But he remains skeptical as to whether this indicated real change in the Latvian judicial system, "I won't be convinced that this is a major stepping stone until the next conviction," Steele said.
Steele commented that this ruling, though a move in a positive direction, reveals problems in the judicial system's handling of hate crime cases. "In reading the text [of the ruling] you have to say that the judicial system doesn't get it," Steele said.
The official wording of the sentence stated that the defendants were under the influence of alcohol and would have attacked anybody.
Steele noted that there were many people around the scene of the crime who were not attacked, and that this sort of wording indicates that "either [the justice system] doesn't understand the difference between hooliganism and racism, or the laws need revising. I suspect the latter is the case."
Kamenska agreed that the current laws are inadequate for dealing with hate crimes and need significant revision. "It is clear that Latvia needs a comprehensive hate crime legislation, especially addressing the four most vulnerable groups: racial, religious, sexual and migrant minorities," Kamenska said.
Currently hate crimes are addressed in two provisions of Latvian law. One deals with "incitement of ethnic or racial hatred" and is actually designed to combat hate speeches. "Violent crimes can also be persecuted by this law, but police find it hard to implement [in these situations]," Kamenska said.
The other law deals with crimes against religious minorities, but as of yet no cases have been successfully prosecuted under this law.
Beyond the inadequacies of lawmakers, Steele sees this as a problem plaguing society as a whole. He notes that the inaction of witnesses to the crimes seems to affirm the crimes.
"If the parents are intolerant, if the teachers are intolerant, if the politicians refuse to speak out against it, if the lawmakers refuse to make stronger laws and the police refuse to enforce them, then this [situation] will become a powder keg," Steele, who is fluent in Latvian, said.
Racial abuse has recently seen a significant rise in Latvia. Nearly half of all recorded incidents of racial abuse occurred in 2005 and 2006.
Despite growing problems with racism in Latvia, however, Steele feels that all is not yet lost. "After all this emotional pain, I still have hope. I still think that here, things can change."