• 2001-04-12
The problem of excessive pre-trial detention periods is damaging Latvia. Some adult cases may even reach the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. Verdicts could be overturned if the cases are successful; an unfortunate outcome given the severity of the crimes involved.

The situation with minors is even more alarming. Currently, under Latvian criminal law, which was inherited from the Soviet period, minors can be detained for longer than two months before being tried for "severe crimes". Such crimes include repeated theft or thefts committed in groups, which are the most common offenses committed by minors, according to police statistics. Such thefts are usually small, amounting to only a few lats.

Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga, who visited one juvenile detention center in Riga last week was shocked by the conditions she found, and by the amount of time minors are spending imprisoned with few activities and no formal education. Latvian human rights activists who hope they have found a compassionate soul in Vike-Freiberga now hope her support will give fresh impetus to reforms. "When she's interested she can be very persistent," said one.

Their hopes may not be in vain. In the few days since her tour Vike-Freiberga has submitted draft changes in the Criminal Law to the country's lawmakers which may improve the situation.

But a question mark hangs over the ministries concerned - the Ministry of Justice and the Ministry of Education - which have done almost nothing about these problems. In November a senior prison official urged prompt action to alleviate the plight of prisoners - many of them juveniles, imprisoned for as long as four years without trial. The frustration of Aleksandrs Tochelovskis, deputy director of Latvia's prison administration made headlines in both the Latvian and foreign media. At the time 72 percent of juveniles in Latvian prisons were awaiting trial. "Six juveniles have attempted suicide this year, two of them successfully," he said. "They did so because of mental health problems caused by pre-trial detention periods which infringed their human rights."

These revelations did not prompt Latvian officials to buck their ideas up. Last week's presidential tour was the first time Justice Minister Ingrida Labucka had visited Brasas prison.

Of course, it's easier to fool visiting EU officials who are supervising Latvia's accession process and to conceal the problem, as obviously happened last month when the EU Commissioner for Justice and Home Affairs Antonio Vitorino visited Latvia. The problem of pre-trial detention was ignored. Only after a reporter asked a sharp question at a press conference did the honored guest started to wonder what the problem was. Labucka was forced to admit that the subject had not got a mention.

It is a sad thing when the only person the needy can turn to is the country's president. Latvia's method of problem-solving is reminiscent of the movie "Superman," in which everything is down to one person who arrives at the last minute. It is high time government officials took action as well. Do we have to wait for a red-cloaked superhero - "VVF" emblazoned across her chest - to swoop down from the heavens and sort out this mess?