With some juveniles waiting to be sentenced for more than two years in inhumane conditions, Latvia still faces "serious problems" in implementing European Union justice norms, said Nils Muiznieks, director of Riga's Center for Human Rights and Ethnic Studies, while presenting an annual human rights report this week.
"Much remains to be done before Latvia has a justice system worthy of the EU," Muiznieks said, adding that the EU has alerted Riga to the problem since 1997.
In particular more must be spent on improving the country's court system and a new criminal law must be adopted, he said.
Latvia hopes to wrap up membership negotiations this year in order to join the EU as soon as in 2004.
Out of the 383 minors imprisoned as of the end of 2001, 62.4 percent were awaiting sentencing. Many of them were allowed to exercise in cagelike exercise yards for just one hour per day.
Latvia had the 17th highest per capita prison population in the world last year with a total of 8,531 inmates. Prisoners, including an increasing number of juveniles, account for 30 percent of all new HIV cases in Latvia. Muiznieks also said Latvian authorities had "not responded adequately" to a damning report published recently by the Council of Europe on the use of torture by police.
Latvian officials rejected the council's report, which detailed cases of beating, asphyxiation with plastic bags, strangulation with guitar strings and infliction of electric shocks.
Positive developments include a "very progressive" new labor law intended to combat discrimination, and allocation of central government funding for efforts to integrate the country's Russian-speaking minority, Muiznieks added.
But he criticized Riga municipality's failure to establish its own integration program as other municipalities have done.