Soviet military spouse case could set legal precedent

  • 2002-07-18
  • Steven C. Johnson

Tatijana Slivenko claims her right to privacy and family life were violated when Latvian authorities deported her and her daughter in 1999 as the family of an ex-Soviet military officer.

If the European Court of Human Rights agrees, legal experts say it could pave the way for new challenges to immigration laws by those affected by the 1994 agreement requiring all ex-Soviet military families to leave Latvian soil.

Slivenko is challenging in the Strasbourg-based court a 1996 Latvian deportation order that said she had to leave the country with her daughter, Karina, because she was married to retired Soviet military officer Nikolai Slivenko.

After independence in 1991, Russia assumed jurisdiction over some 200,000 armed forces stationed in the three Baltic states. A 1994 bilateral agreement between Russia and Latvia required all military personnel and their families to leave the country by Aug. 31, 1994.

Nikolai Slivenko, who had been transferred to Latvia as a Soviet officer in 1977, left the country, but his wife and daughter refused, saying they were permanent residents. Tatijana also said she needed to stay to care for her elderly parents in Riga.

After several court rulings and appeals, the Latvian Supreme Court ruled against Slivenko, and a deportation order was issued on Aug. 20, 1996.

Latvian authorities say that when Slivenko was included with her daughter in a list of permanent residents of Latvia in 1993, she lied about her husband's profession, saying he worked in a factory.

Slivenko, 43, defied the deportation order, and both she and her daughter were detained in a center for illegal immigrants in 1998. Karina, 21, was detained again in 1999 and held for 30 hours in an illegal detention center near the Riga Central Market.

"They failed to comply with requests from authorities to leave the country, even when immigration authorities said that if she complied voluntarily, they would immediately issue a visa she could use to visit her family," said Kristine Malinovska, Latvia's representative in the case.

The two finally joined Nikolai, now in Kursk, Russia, in July 1999, and Latvian authorities barred them from re-entering the country for five years as a result of disobeying deportation orders.

Having exhausted all avenues of appeal in Latvia, Slivenko appealed to the European Court of Human Rights, claiming she was being illegally separated from elderly parents in Riga who required her care.

The court ruled her case admissible earlier this year on three counts: right to liberty and security; prohibition of discrimination; and right to respect for private and family life.

The European Human Rights Convention that empowers the court was ratified by Latvia's Parliament in 1996 and came into effect in 1997.

The court has yet to set a date for hearings

If the Strasbourg court rules in Slivenko's favor, legal experts say Latvia may be forced to make more exceptions for spouses of Soviet military in cases involving extenuating circumstances.

Ineta Ziemele, a doctor of law and professor at the Riga Graduate School of Law, said the government had a strong case because the 1994 treaty deals with issues of international law and illegal occupation.

But if the court rules that basic human rights - the right to privacy and family life - were violated, even as a result of the 1994 agreement, it may push the court's Grand Chamber of 17 judges in Slivenko's favor.

"There should be something in the law that takes into account mitigating circumstances," Ziemele said.

The case, said Ilvija Bake, a lawyer at the Latvian Center for Human Rights and Ethnic Studies, could set a legal precedent by which other similar claims are measured. And a ruling against Latvia, she said, could help the state fine-tune its laws.

"On the one hand, a ruling against a country is a blow to its prestige, but on the other hand, it's good because it can be a catalyst to change laws and prepare procedure," Bake said.

Slivenko is demanding 400,000 euros ($400,000) in damages. Neither she nor her lawyers could be reached for comment, but the Baltic News Service reported that her Moscow-based legal team is also representing two other Latvians in similar cases.

But if she wins, Slivenko will not necessarily be entitled to permanent resident status since that would entitle her husband to relocate to Latvia with his family - still illegal according to the 1994 troop withdrawal agreement.

"Neither the court nor the convention gives people the right to demand and receive any particular status," said Malinovska. "That would be up to the Latvian authorities to decide."

In this case, Slivenko would likely be granted the right to normal visas for visiting her family in Riga, Ziemele said, thus voiding the five-year ban on entering the country that took effect when Slivenko left in 1999.

Tatjana Zhdanok, director of the Latvian Human Rights Committee, a non-government group that helped Slivenko mount legal challenges in Latvia, called that five-year ban on entry "very discriminatory."

"Her mother is nearly blind, and the Latvian decision shows no respect for family life. Latvian laws need to be more flexible," she said. "I think she will win."