RIGA - Following his final statement of innocence Alexander Lavent, one of the accused in the Banka Baltija fraud trial, suffered a heart failure and was taken to hospital Sept. 5.
Lavent's collapse followed a visit to Riga by another foreign politician, this time from Austria's widely-ostracized Freedom Party, who expressed concern for the defendants Aug. 30. Their long detention is symptomatic of the inadequacy of Latvia's judicial system, say experts.
Prior to Lavent's heart failure Judge Inara Steinerte had cut short Lavent's speech because, she said, he was threatening the court and not keeping to the point.
Lavent, with fellow-defendants Talis Freimanis and Alvis Lidums, is charged with damaging Latvia's monetary system, misappropriation of property, and other crimes relating to Banka Baltija's collapse, in which thousands lost their savings in 1995. Lavent, who claims he is the victim of a conspiracy, now awaits a hearing by the European Court of Human Rights into the judicial system's treatment of him.
Peter Sichrovsky, MEP and Freedom Party general secretary said excuses used by justice officials did not justify the nearly five years the defendants have spent in jail prior to and during their trial.
"The deputy supreme judge mentioned the case's complexity, and a lack of administrative experience," Sichrovsky said.
"But these don't justify breaking human rights laws."
He stressed the importance of a sound justice system as a foundation for democracy and said that human rights are a key consideration when the EU considers inviting other states to join.
"Those opposed to EU enlargement could use such cases to argue against Latvia's membership. The enlargement issue should not be clouded by this."
Claims made by Steiner-te to The Baltic Times that Lavent's "capricious" behavior had unnecessarily prolonged the trial were rejected by Latvian MP Janis Jurkans, who hosted Sichrovsky's visit and that of Israeli MP Roman Bronfman last month.
"If a defendant can manipulate the court there are problems with procedure," Jurkans said.
"But has the judge requested any procedural changes? No."
Jurkans rejected recent speculation that he, or visiting MPs, were being paid to assist the defendants.
Sichrovsky said his concern was partly motivated by the fact that Lavent is a member of the Jewish community. He rejected suggestions that such concern conflicts with the extreme right- wing politics with which his party is associated.
"I wouldn't be in this party if Mr. (Jorg) Haider (the Freedom Party's ex-leader) was anti-Semitic," he said.
But past statements by Haider appear to undermine this stance. In 1990, for example, Haider said he "appreciated" the efforts of Waffen SS officers "in a struggle for freedom and democracy in Europe," according to press reports. In 1995 he referred to Nazi concentration camps as "penal camps."
The EU has imposed sanctions on Austria because of the inclusion of Sich-rovsky's party in the country's governing coalition.
"My concern for human rights may contradict your idea of the party I work with," said Sichrovsky. "But in reality there is no contradiction."
Sichrovsky's stated concern for Latvia's EU membership bid does not contradict Freedom Party policy, he said.
"The Austrian government says fast expansion is important, though our members say there have to be different levels."
The length of the defendants' detention does indeed highlight the "incredible weakness" of the Latvian court system, said Nils Muiz-nieks, director of the Latvian Center for Human Rights and Ethnic Studies. In February 2000, 607 people in Riga's prisons had been in prison awaiting sentencing since 1997, according to a recent report by the center.
"Good people have not been appointed as judges recently, due to underfunding," said Muiz-nieks.
"Working conditions are bad. The courts are crumbling, there are no computers. On top of this they are trying to learn about the European Court of Human Rights and European Court of Justice."
But in focusing on the Banka Baltija defendants, visiting MPs' concern for human rights has been overly selective, he suggested. The judicial system's treatment of people under the age of 18 was notably absent from the concerns they had raised.
"Lavent isn't the only one whose rights have been violated. Some minors suffer very long pre-trial detention and very severe sentences," he said.
"Minors have been detained for three years without sentencing. It's odd to have parliamentarians who know nothing about the Latvian system coming here."