The European Court of Human Rights ruled last week that Latvia had violated the rights of ex-banker Alexander Lavents to a fair and speedy trial, prompting a new call here for judicial reform.
Lavents served as chairman of the board of Banka Baltija, which collapsed in 1995, taking the savings of many Latvians with it.
Arrested in July 1995 and charged a year later with sabotage for allegedly defrauding hundreds of thousands of Latvians of their deposits, he spent more than six years in pretrial detention before being convicted by a Latvian court in 2001 and sentenced to nine years in prison.
That ruling is being appealed.
Meanwhile, Lavents took his case to the Strasbourg-based European court, claiming that he his long period in prison or under house arrest awaiting trial violated his right to liberty and to a speedy trial.
After months of deliberation, a seven-judge panel ruled Nov. 28 that Latvia had indeed violated six articles of the European Convention on Human Rights, including right to liberty, security and presumption of innocence.
The court held Latvia responsible for the long pretrial detention and the lack of judicial review during that period and said Lavents right "to a fair hearing within a reasonable time" had been denied. It also ruled against Latvia for violating Lavents' privacy by monitoring his correspondence while he was in prison.
The court also held Latvia accountable for violating the "presumption of innocence" clause, pointing to public comments made in 1999 by the presiding judge in Lavents' case in which she criticized the defense and alluded to a guilty verdict.
She also called on Lavents to prove his innocence, which the court said was "at variance with the very principle of the presumption of innocence, one of the fundamental principles governing a democratic state."
Lavents' lawyer Irina Kauke welcomed the ruling. "This will come in handy not only in Lavents' trial, but it also gives a good lesson to all Latvian courts," she said.
Latvia has been heavily criticized by human rights groups at home and abroad for a series of long pretrial detentions.
Last year, President Vaira Vike-Freiberga made a high-profile visit to one of Riga's overcrowded prisons and said she was shocked to find so many inmates waiting up to a year or more to go to trial.
Speaking after the Lavents ruling, Vike-Freiberga reiterated that message, saying the ruling pointed out a number of problems that the Justice Ministry will have to work to resolve.
"This government will have to make energetic decisions to push on with the reforms at a faster pace," she said.
The European Union has singled out judicial reform as a top priority for Latvia before it joins the bloc as hoped in 2004.
A spokesman for Prime Minister Einars Repse, who focused on corruption prevention and judicial reform during his pre-election campaign earlier this year, said the Lavents verdict pointed up the failures of the criminal justice system.
"One must realize the ruling is about procedural violations that are inadmissible, regardless of the identity of the defendant," said Repse aide Dans Titavs.
The ruling does not affect Lavents' original conviction in which a Latvian court found him guilty of misappropriation of depositors' funds, organization of fictitious companies, concealment of accounting figures and attempts to undermine Latvia's monetary system and to weaken the state.
Prosecutors dealing with Lavents' trial suspected him of sabotage for the transfer of approximately 81 million lats (139 million euros) to a Moscow-based bank in exchange for undertaking to make a payment in the form of Russian government bonds.