RIGA - The Riga Regional Court ruled on Aug. 9 to grant Ventspils Mayor Aivars Lembergs his request to have his house arrest transferred to his large country home in the Puze district.
Although the defense had asked the court to reconsider the necessity of a house arrest, the ruling is seen as a victory for the mayor, particularly since prosecutors had proposed that the judge force Lembergs to return to jail for the duration of the ongoing investigation.
Prior to the decision Lembergs had been confined to his two-room apartment in Ventspils.
Chief prosecutor Krisjanis Rudzitis told journalists after the hearing that "no circumstances substantiating the granting of home arrest exist at the moment." He said that the reason cited by Lembergs for delaying the hearing 's the mayor claimed to have had a backache 's was insufficient.
Rudzitis went on to accuse Lembergs of having broken the conditions of his house arrest, alleging that he contacted a number of people without permission numerous times. The prosecutor has previously argued that Lembergs would hamper the investigation through contact with the key players in the case if freed from detention.
Rudzitis has alleged that the defendant and his lawyer incorrectly and absurdly interpret the restrictions 's which he admits are vague 's that the court imposed on the mayor.
Lembergs defended himself to journalists during a court break shortly before the ruling.
"I have not breached anything as no restrictions were imposed on me," he said. "Prohibition and restriction are not synonyms. The prosecutor had to ask the investigating judge to decide on the amount of the restrictions, but it has not been set for me. These could be determined by the investigating judge, but they [the Prosecutor's Office] have not asked for that."
Lembergs' lawyer, Aivo Leimanis, added that prosecutors' accusations were merely allegations without documentary evidence. The lawyer said that Lembergs had not contacted anybody without permission and reminded journalists that the court had not found any evidence of his tampering with the trial.
Leimanis said that Lembergs was not, in fact, prohibited from communicating with people.
The central district court decision can be appealed in Riga Regional Court within seven days.
On Aug. 10, a day after the most recent ruling, President Valdis Zatlers said that it is unethical for Lembergs to continue his duties as mayor of Ventspils.
"I think that if we are observing it purely politically, of course the situation when a person charged with heavy fraud is retaining his mayor''s position is not very ethical," the president said in an interview with the Baltic News Service.
Zatlers said that he is following the case very closely and has gathered all of the information about it that is available to him. He noted that the case is a complicated one not only because of legal issues but also "on the public side."
"I think that the issue must be more widely publicly discussed and, if you want to change something, you have to address the public," he said.
Despite his having been unable to perform his duties as mayor for approximately five months due to his detention and an ongoing corruption investigation, Lembergs retains the post. He has expressed a willingness to go back to work.
Lembergs can only be forced out of office through a guilty verdict or a Ventspils City Council vote. The latter seems unlikely, however, given his iron grip on municipal politics. He recently received the "Citizen of the Year" award, the highest honor that a Latvian city can bestow on a citizen.
Lembergs was originally detained on March 14 in connection with a large-scale corruption investigation among Ventspils officials. He has been charged with fraud, extortion, money laundering and providing false income declarations. He was moved to house arrest on July 10 due to his failing health.