Latvia lacks top prosecutor for time being

  • 2000-04-06
  • By Blake Lambert
RIGA – The Supreme Court's first candidate to replace Janis Skrastins as prosecutor general was rejected by Parliament on March 30.

Supreme Court Judge Ilgars Zigfrids Septeris, who has 25 years of legal experience and was considered a consummate professional, failed to win the approval of Members of Parliament days before Skrastins officially retired on April 3.

The rejection of Septeris and the retirement of Skrastins, who spent eight years in his position, have pushed the prosecutor general's office into unfamiliar territory: It does not have a full-time head prosecutor.

"It's a new situation, yes," said Leonards Pavils, press secretary for the Ministry of Justice, "it's the first time."

Rudite Abolina, who has worked with the prosecutor general's office since 1976 and currently heads one of its departments, will be Skrastins' temporary replacement; she began her duties on April 4.

"[Abolina] will be the acting prosecutor general, until the new prosecutor general will be accepted by Parliament," said Dzintra Subrovska, press secretary for the prosecutor general's office.

It is not known when a replacement will be in place, but Pavils said Chief Supreme Court Judge Andris Gulans will announce a new candidate by April 14, although he suggested the announcement could come as early as April 7.

Neither Gulans nor Subrovska fully addressed the reason for the MP's rejecting Septeris, despite his strong professional background and his initial approval among legal experts.

"It's a question for the Members of Parliament," said Pavils. "Gulans has not commented [on Septeris' rejection]."

Subrovska said: "It's a question addressed maybe to Parliament. Who knows? There are different opinions as far as what I see in TV and in newspapers."

However, one legal observer suggested a decision in Septeris' past had a resounding impact on his future.

"Some years ago, when he was a judge, his daughter was involved in a law suit [in his courtroom]. The question was whether there was a conflict of interest," said Martins Mits, acting director of the Institute on Human Rights at the University of Latvia. "From a legal point of view, there was a conflict of interest, but Septeris denied this after it came to light."

Mits said any candidate for prosecutor general must be transparent and clear; they must be trusted by society and be able to raise the authority of the prosecutor's office.

"I think that's the main reason [Septeris] lost the trust of many politicians," he said. "How can you trust a person who doesn't know the rule of law or what is a conflict of interest?"

Nevertheless, the prosecutor general's office was unhappy with Parliament's rejection of Septeris, as it hoped to have a replacement prepared to assume Skrastins' duties.

"[Skrastins said] it's more of a political decision by Parliament than a professional one," said Subrovska. "He said it's not the best decision for the prosecutor's office. Of course, it's better to give this post from one hand to another."

Meanwhile, Skrastins, who faced intense criticism since last September for his handling of the alleged pedophilia ring before deciding to retire in January, received a clean bill of professional conduct from the Supreme Court on March 31.

Gulans assigned Supreme Court Judge Voldemars Cizevskis to investigate Skrastins' work after receiving a petition from MP's in January.It marked the first time the Supreme Court had ever investigated a prosecutor general's conduct, a point which was emphasized by Cizevskis at a press conference on March 31 where he released his findings on Skrastins.

"There are no laws on how to investigate the prosecutor general's work," said Cizevskis.

In fact, legal experts said the powers of the Supreme Court to penalize Skrastins, if any wrongdoing was discovered, were limited, because it was not a criminal investigation.

"Looking at all the materials, I can't find a reason to remove the prosecutor general from his position," said Cizevskis. "I haven't found any evidence that Prosecutor General Janis Skrastins has broken the law or that he acted disreputably in connection with his work."

He said if Skrastins did not resign, he could have continued as prosecutor general.

When asked by one reporter why the investigation was called for in the first place given its results, he replied, "You should ask the MP's yourself."

Mits said he was not surprised that Cizevskis' investigation offered Skrastins a measure of vindication because he felt it was politically motivated from the start. The initial request was spearheaded by MP Janis Adamsons, who is chair of Parliament's investigation commission and Skrastins' major nemesis.

He said nobody expected that anything was done wrong by the prosecutor general's office, at least nothing which must be criminally punished.

Yet Mits would not commit to the idea that Parliament is increasing its pressure on judicial institutions when it came to selecting a new prosecutor general.

"I definitely have that feeling that [Chief Supreme Court Judge Andris] Gulans is forced to take into account the political situation and opinions of political forces," he said. "I think it would be too premature to conclude there's something absolutely wrong."