Latvia's fiercer youth wait for elusive freedom

  • 2001-07-12
  • Nick Coleman
RIGA - Just back from an appeal hearing, Katya, a tall 17-year-old, steps into the garden from the crumbling prison building where she has lived since kicking a security guard to death 19 months ago.

"I didn't mean to kill him," she says. "I didn't know what I was doing. My only motive was to defend myself."

While many young Latvians have their sights set firmly on the West, the future for those in prison, particularly the many non-citizens - most of them Russian speakers - is bleak.

Katya's murder conviction was upheld June 6. She was given the minimum sentence for premeditated murder - five years' imprisonment - but among the staff at Latvia's main women's prison, there are some who have doubts. "It could hardly be called premeditated," says Deputy Governor Nadezhda Sevastjanova.

Problems in the justice system moved up the political agenda in April, when President Vaira Vike-Freiberga visited Brasas, a prison for males, which at the time housed 192 boys aged 14-18. Of the 192, 160 had been waiting for trials or appeal hearings more than six months and 31 more than two years. The situation at Brasas was a "shameful violation of human rights," said Vike-Freiberga.

Gunter Weiss, head of the European Commission's delegation to Latvia, is more specific. The state of the justice system could affect Latvia's EU accession plans, he says. "Parliamentarians in the member states, who will have to ratify enlargement, would be better impressed if there was evidence of progress."

Inmates at Brasas spend an hour a day in the gloom of a small yard, which has high walls and is topped with netting. With the help of the Soros Foundation-Latvia, one room has been equipped with a video player and some books. But there is no education and most of the time the boys are confined, up to 15 to a cell, which doubles as a dining and bath room. Visits and letters - deemed to prejudice trials - are banned.

Vitolds Zahars, the prison service's outspoken director general, says the justice system has failed to adapt.

"Juveniles are living like animals because of attitudes and regulations inherited from the Soviet system," he said. "Everything needs to be strengthened."

For a country of just 2.3 million, the low rate of recorded crime does not justify a prison population of nearly 9,000, he says. It is a per capita imprisonment rate that exceeds those of all other countries applying for EU membership and dwarfs rates in Western Europe, according to research by Roy Walmsley of the U.K. Home Office.

A few changes have occurred since Vike-Freiberga's visit. Courts have been ordered to deal with more complex juvenile cases, which Zahars said had been sidelined. Parliament has amended the criminal law, making it possible, technically, to fast-track hearings for more serious, as well as petty crimes by juveniles.

But with Riga District Court scheduling hearings for late 2003 and 42.4 percent of all prisoners awaiting trials or appeal hearings, he says it will take a lot more effort to turn things around and avoid a repeat of an incident one morning last July, when two teenagers in pretrial detention hung themselves.

At the women's prison, pretrial teenagers are often mixed with the sentenced, in better conditions than at the boys' prison. But the long waits still raise aggression levels, says psychologist Alexandra Kiselova.

For what Zahars calls "very fierce, bad behavior" - usually fighting or breaking furniture - they are put in an isolation cell. One girl has been in it 13 times, for between three and 10 days; Katya only once, for five days. Both say they were offered exercise in a courtyard, but didn't take it.

"It was very cold and damp, with a small window and a light bulb in the corner," says Katya. "I wrote a long poem."

Just back from her appeal, she is upset. "The judges gave me no time to answer the questions. It was through a translator and I needed more time."

According to the court judgment, she met 60-year-old Andrejs Jermaks for the first time that evening in November 1999, when she accompanied an older friend to the college he was guarding, in search of a place to drink. The friend testified that Jermaks made advances on Katya. When she returned from a nearby liquor store, Katya appeared to have bitten Jermaks, she said.

After a second absence to wash glasses, she found the two struggling and saw Jermaks brandish a knife. But she denied Katya's claim that he used it to attack her.

The panel of three judges, led by Leontina Pluksna, said the three or four minutes when Katya and Jermaks were alone were "insufficient for a serious conflict." They pointed to a medical examination which showed she had sustained only minor injuries.

Pluksna said her admission to have used martial arts techniques to fell Jermaks "proved she was aware of the socially dangerous nature of her actions and could foresee the man's death."

They dismissed her explanation, recorded in the judgment, for kicking Jermaks repeatedly in the head and torso once he was on the ground: "I felt disgust and anger and couldn't stop. I was afraid he would get up and attack me again."

The violence and neglect Katya recalls is common to many inmates, says Anita Rakovska, head of the juvenile unit. The other thing she has in common with many of them is Russian roots - Zahars says 67 percent of all prisoners are from Latvia's Russian-speaking Eastern neighbors.

While levels of domestic violence are not thought to be higher among Latvia's minorities, Katya's story is symptomatic of the malaise among many of those descended from Latvia's Soviet-era settlers. Currently, more than 550,000 are non-citizen residents, although citizenship became available to all but senior members of the Soviet hierarchy in 1995.

Katya's father confirmed to the court that she left Latvia at the age of 10, just after independence, to live with her mother in Bryansk, western Russia. There, she says, her stepfather beat her and then committed suicide.

"My mother started drinking and told me I could leave when I wanted. She blamed me for my stepfather's death. She would go away for days with boyfriends. We had a lot of problems. She beat me and used the big dog she had to attack me. I killed it."

She then left Bryansk for Moscow, where she lived on the streets for a year, before applying at the Latvian Embassy for permission to return to her father. At the time of Jermaks' death, she was living in a shelter for street children.

Rakovska predicts she will be released early for good behavior. Unimpressed by her self-defense plea, she says a period of reflection will do her good. But with prisoners receiving minimal education and with no probation service to oversee their release, she is downbeat about their prospects.

"They go home and nothing has changed. The situation is the same and they are lost. Convicting teenagers doesn't solve the causes."