Committee has few rules

  • 2000-02-24
  • By J. Michael Lyons
RIGA — Prime Minister Andris Skele has compared the government committee investigating the existence of a widespread child pornography and prostitution ring in Latvia to the 1950s search for communists in the United States orchestrated by then Senator Joseph McCarthy.

Others have called it a witch hunt with a political agenda and a twist of revenge funded by enemies of Skele.

There are still others, like the general public, who aren't quite sure what to call it.

Local news wires crackled late last week when committee head Janis Adamsons announced to a rapt parliament that Skele and Justice Minister Valdis Birkavs were involved in a scandal that has included everything but arrests and publicly released evidence.

Skele denied the accusations and Birkavs answered by launching a hunger strike.

One news service this week reported a high-ranking government official as saying the scandal was tied to Russian secret agents, a claim dismissed minutes later on the same news wire.

"It has basically been reduced to a soap opera," said Latvia's Way MP Inese Birzniece.

At the center of the entire story is a parliamentary committee charged with sifting through evidence that has little more legal standing than a sewing circle.

Two members from each party in parliament comprise the committee, which has six members on the opposition side and six members from the governing coalition.

It has heard from about 40 witnesses, according to members, that have included adults who were abused as children, teachers, relatives of victims and a few prostitutes and people currently serving prison sentences who voluntarily offered their stories.

"But they're information cannot always be fully reliable," said Aida Predele, a committee member from For Fatherland and Freedom. "If they go to the prosecutor's office sometimes they change their story."

Unlike the court system, witnesses that appear before the parliament committee are not sworn in. There are no subpoenas ordering anyone to testify and witnesses can't be charged with perjury if they are later found to be lying.

"You could call it discussion, not testimony," said Birzniece, who was an attorney in the United States before moving to Latvia after independence.

So what is the committee's goal?

It is vaguely designed by the constitution to gather evidence.

"The Parliament shall appoint parliamentary investigatory committees if not less than one third of its members request it," the constitution reads.

That's the single legal tenet guiding the committee.

Guidelines like its composition, what it does with the evidence it collects and who it answers to have been established along the way, committee members said.

The committee has yet to hand over the evidence it has gathered to a legal authority, despite calls to do so from organizations like the Latvia Lawyers Union.

But as a result of the current scandal, parliament is set to consider adoption of a law on investigative committees that will define things like whether the opposition or government should comprise a majority membership and establishing what is legally acceptable testimony.

"I think it's one of the biggest tests of the legal systems," said Birzniece.

Predele believes the committee's reputation has been hurt by its lack of definition and rules that might have harnessed a renegade chairman.

Political agendas, she said, have overshadowed what should be the committee's sole objective — to help determine if an organized child pornography and prostitution industry exists in Latvia and, if it does, whether or not it can be brought to the courts.

Based on what she has heard over the last five months, Predele has no doubt it exists.

"It's absolutely clear that big money is involved," she said, adding that a few committee members have been threatened.

But she, like others around the country, is still waiting to see how the scandal will move from the rumor-driven halls of parliament to a court room.

"There [are] thousands of children," she said. "And through all this scandal these children are still suffering."