Latvians demand cycling star's release from Lithuanian jail

  • 2002-06-13
  • Jorgen Johansson, RIGA
Latvians are incensed at the incarceration of Latvian cyclist Juris Silovs, convicted in Lithuania recently of trying to smuggle money across the country's border, and are flooding officials in their southern neighboring country with complaints.

Silovs was sentenced to five-and-a-half years behind bars in a maximum security prison in Pravieniskes, near Kaunas, for failing to declare $80,000 when driving across the Latvian-Lithuanian border at the Marijampole checkpoint, according to the Baltic News Service.

Silovs, who claims he is innocent, has appealed the decision, according to lawyer Algimantas Dziegoraitis. An appeals court in Vilnius is expected to hear the case on June 27.

Latvian newspapers have harshly criticized Silovs' conviction. The daily tabloid Vakara Zinas urged readers recently to boycott Lithuanian goods and businesses and called for a protest campaign in the form of letters to Lithuanian President Valdas Adamkus.

Darius Kuolys, an adviser to Adamkus, has confirmed the receipt of angry letters from both Latvians and Lithuanians demanding Silovs' release and said the president was reading each one and following the situation closely.

Should Silovs appeal go unheard, Adamkus has pledged he will pardon him if he so asks after reading scores of such demands.

Last week, the Latvian Parliament's sports subcommittee sent a letter to Adamkus and Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga asking them to use their influence to stand up for Silovs. The subcommittee also called for Latvia's Foreign Ministry to take immediate action.

Latvian Prime Minister Andris Berzins has also inquired about forms of possible assistance for Silovs. Berzins' spokesman, Arnis Lapins, said the government can only follow the developments in this matter, "but in the future, every possible chance will be used to assist Silovs," ensuring legal aid, translations and informing his relatives.

Latvian Foreign Minister Indulis Berzins told The Baltic Times that there was very little his ministry could do for Silovs at this stage.

"All we can do is wait and see what will happen. A country's justice system is independent from the government, as it should be, and cannot be affected from outside," Berzins said.

In Latvia, Silovs is a national hero. In 1995, he finished seventh in the European Championship and the following year he competed for Latvia in the Summer Olympics in Atlanta.

He spent the next two years as reigning national champion in Latvia and has competed for professional cycling clubs in Europe, including Belgium's Cofidis.

His career took a turn for the worse two years ago when he was attacked outside a restaurant in his hometown of Dobele. He spent a month in a coma after the beating.

A motive for the attack was never established and the culprits were never found.

Igo Japins, Silovs' former coach, said the cyclist never fully recovered.

"He became a little bit strange after this incident. I'm 100 percent sure the attack changed him," Japins said.

After the assault, Silovs performances started to drop. When Cofidis terminated his contract, he withdrew a large sum of money from his bank account in Belgium and drove back to Latvia. It was this money, his lawyer says, that he was carrying in his car when he crossed the Lithuanian border, having forgotten to declare it when he entered Latvia.