Protracted Lavents' bank trial concludes

  • 2002-01-10
  • Jorgen Johansson
RIGA - What seemed like an eternal trial against former banker Aleksandrs Lavents ended on Jan. 3 with a nine-year jail sentence. But the chances are high that he will appeal, and possibly leave the justice system to deal with a similarly lengthy sequel.

Lavents, the former chairman of Banka Baltija, which collapsed in 1995 causing years of damage to Latvia's banking system, has been on trial for almost five years along with the bank's former President Talis Freimanis and Alvis Lidums, former head of L&A, an investment consultancy, who was working at the bank as an investment specialist.

Lavents and Freimanis were each given identical charges: undermining Latvia's monetary system, large-scale embezzlement, and the forgery of documents. Freimanis got six years.

Lidums was charged only with embezzlement. He has spent three years and three months in prison, having been incarcerated during the trial, and was given a sentence of this amount of time. He was therefore released.

Riga Regional Court Judge Inara Steinerte, who presided over the case, told The Baltic Times she was happy it was over as far as the regional court is concerned.

She would not comment on the fairness of her ruling. If there is an appeal, the case goes next to the Supreme Court. "It's up to them to decide," she said.

If Lavents is to appeal, he must do so within 20 days of the verdict.

Steinerte was the third judge put on the case since it was handed to the court in 1997. Aina Saulite was first given the task, but shortly after refused for personal reasons. The case was then sent to Voldemars Zarins, who was removed when it turned out his wife had lost money as a result of the Banka Baltija crash.

Another major hindrance has been Lavents' chronic heart condition.

"The case could have been wrapped up a lot sooner if it were not for Lavents' innumerable trips to the hospital," Steinerte said.

According to doctors, the ex-banker has not been well enough to stand trial since he collapsed in court in September 2000. Few complained at Lavents' subsequent hospitalization, but indignation was voiced when it was revealed that he was in private care and not in the pre-trial prison hospital.

Doctors again came to his rescue by saying the standard of treatment was too poor there.

During the trial, Lavents filed a case at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France, stating that he had been a victim of persecution by the state since his arrest - now nearly six years ago. The French court accepted his complaint June 6, 2001. A verdict has yet to be reached.

Prosecutor Juris Peda had been calling for stiffer sentences than the ones eventually given: a 13-year sentence and property confiscation for Lavents, nine for Freimanis and six for Lidums. He also wanted the court to ban the defendants from engaging in any kind of business for the next five years.

But after the verdict was read, Peda told reporters he was satisfied and that he had no intention of appealing the ruling since the defendants were found guilty on all counts.Steinerte, however, said she felt sorry both for her colleagues who will have to consider the likely appeal in the Supreme Court and for the journalists and defendants themselves who will have to hear it all over again.

Besides the charges heard, Lidums and Lavents have several civil claims against them, which amount to some 35 million lats ($55.6 million).

Clients had been lured to Banka Baltija by huge interest rates of up to 90 percent. When it collapsed thousands of people lost their savings and hundreds of businesses were ruined.

According to the court, Lavents had been using the bank as his own personal "pocket bank." He lent money to companies he and his friends were in control of.

Helmuts Ancans, head of the Monetary Policy Department at Latvia's central bank, said Banka Baltija's bankruptcy had two effects on the Latvian economy - one direct and one indirect.

"The direct effect was that it was a major bank in Latvia. It was the leading lending bank. In 1995 its total assets equaled 10 percent of the whole country's GDP. It was of course a massive loss for the economy.

"The indirect effect was a fall in public trust in banks, resulting in a decrease in liquidity, which pushed up corporate rates. Latvia has now fully recovered, and we are witnessing an increase in long-term deposits," Ancans said.

The crash left Banka Baltija with just over 204 million lats in liabilities.