Council of Europe report alleges police brutality

  • 2001-12-13
  • Jorgen Johansson, RIGA
Latvian law authorities and detention facilities need to take large strides toward educating their staffs on how to treat detainees and prisoners, according to a recent report published by the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture.

While the CPT delegation visited Latvia from Jan. 24 to Feb. 3 in 1999, their report has only been made public now because the committee has been waiting for the Latvian government to approve its release.

According to the committee's report - which Latvian officials hotly dispute despite approving its release - the delegation received a "considerable number" of allegations of physical abuse from people detained by police, including punches, kicks and being hit with truncheons or gun butts.

Some of the allegations, including severe beatings, asphyxiation, strangulation and electric shocks during questioning, could be considered to amount to torture, the report said.

The Latvian Interior Ministry - hardest hit by some of the criticism in the report - said the CPT's conclusions are groundless. "There are no facts supporting the delegation's report," read a statement released by the ministry.

Raimonds Blukis, deputy secretary of state for the Interior Ministry, refused to comment on the report, while the ministry's press department would only refer to the Latvian government's response on the Council of Europe's Internet site, which doesn't mention the allegations of police brutality.

Angelita Kamenska, head of Soros Foundation's Prison Reform Program in Latvia and the CPT's current Latvian representative, said the government had access to the report for almost two-and-a-half years before it was published.

"After a Cabinet of Ministers meeting Dec. 13 last year, it was decided to let the report be made public along with the Latvian government's response," she said. "Since the report was published, there has been an increase in reports of torture and ill-treatment by police officers."

Latvia has promised to give detainees information about their rights - including phone calls, and having a lawyer present during questioning - in Latvian, Russian and English. But Kamenska is skeptical about the implementation of the changes.

The most serious allegations in the delegation report are contained in case studies of two men who were interviewed by members of the delegation, which included medical doctors, lawyers, former police officers, a professor of criminology and the director of the University Institute of Forensic Medicine in Geneva, Switzerland.

One man told the committee he was detained at the Riga General Police Board Detention Facility after being arrested in December 1998. There, he was questioned by non-uniformed officers for more than five hours.

During this period, he alleged, he was tied to a chair, and on two occasions a plastic bag was put over his head and face until he lost consciousness.

The man added he had been strangulated with a guitar string.

"On examination by a medical member of the delegation, he was found to display clear horizontal, linear scar tissue on the anterior aspect of his neck compatible with the allegation of strangulation using a guitar wire," the report reads.

A second man said he was beaten and thrown against a wall where his head struck a radiator.

According to the report, a doctor's examination later found parallel scars that matched the ribs on a radiator in the room where he was held.

Krists Leiskalns, Latvian State Police spokesman, said he has worked on the force for five years and has never seen or heard of officers using plastic bags or guitar strings on suspects.

"In our investigation following this report, we found nothing that supports these allegations. Our country is too small. These things could not happen here without everybody knowing about it."

He did add, however, that police sometimes overreact, but not to the extent that is mentioned in the CPT's report.

Not only are police not as abusive as the report alleges, Leiskalns said, but there have been cases where people use public perception of police in their favor.

"There was one case where two police officers were trying to arrest a man urinating in the street. The man had two black eyes from before and said he would call the newspapers the following day and say the police did it to him," Leiskalns said.

"That man was not arrested because the police were afraid of the possible public reaction."

Ilvija Bake, a human rights lawyer in Latvia, disagrees with Leiskalns' assessment of police behavior, as cases against police officers are piling up, she said.

"I took one of my clients to a police officer investigating crimes committed by other officers and he told me they had many such cases," Bake said. "It is common that my clients have been physically abused and threatened that they will be killed if they say anything."

The CPT will send a new delegation to Latvia in 2002 as part of the committee's regular visits to European Council member states that have ratified the European Convention for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. Of the 43 member states, 41 have signed the convention.