Rough justice for teenagers awaiting trial

  • 2001-10-04
  • Nick Coleman
RIGA - His spiky hair stands straight up, but Igor sits slumped sullenly at a desk after 14 months in a remand prison awaiting trial for stealing car radios, one of dozens of teenagers in Latvia caught in the slow wheels of justice.

"They say I might be tried in two months," he said, uncertain whether his stay at Brasa Prison is really nearing its end. "My girlfriend is waiting for me. But I don't know for how long."

The excessive length of pretrial detention endured by teenage inmates in Latvia is gaining more attention and was highlighted at a meeting of Latvian and EU parliamentarians in Riga in September.

President Vaira Vike-Freiberga kick started the process in April, describing conditions at Brasa Prison on the edge of Riga, where 190 juveniles await their day in court as a "grave violation of human rights."

But the improvements she initiated, such as new limits on the period juveniles can be detained without trial - six months to complete an investigation, plus six months awaiting trial - have had little effect so far.

Ainars Leitans, Brasa's deputy governor, says that among the inmates are still some who have waited more than two years for a trial.

They get to see the light of day for only one hour daily, pacing a courtyard only a few meters long, surrounded by high walls and topped with wire meshing. Most of their time they spend, up to 14 of them together, in gloomy, overcrowded cells which double as dining and bath rooms .

Of the 190, 16 are HIV positive, although none has yet developed the symptoms of AIDS.

Education is makeshift - a couple of hours per week, paid for by foreign donors. "Generally, normal kids become not better, but worse here," said teacher, Peteris Dedarts, whose salary is paid by the Danish state.

Dedarts hopes Igor, now aged 19, will prove an exception. An ancient King James edition of the Bible open in front of him, Igor is attempting to improve his English. "I'd like more lessons with different teachers," he said, realizing he will need a skill when he finally gets out.

Pressure for reform is likely to increase. The European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg is expected to rule soon on a number of complaints from teenage inmates in Latvia.

The European Commission has also expressed concern about the situation in the country, although it is not the only ex-communist candidate for EU membership which needs to improve its treatment of juvenile offenders.

Angelita Kamenska, director of the Soros Foundation Latvia's police and prison reform program, says cumbersome procedures and the lack of a probation service are among the reasons why Latvia's per capita prison population is the 14th largest in the world and the largest of all the candidates for EU membership.