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Tuesday 18.09.2018 | Name days: Liesma, Elita, Alita

Latvian courts: How incorruptible and independent?

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Although the Latvian court system is still relatively “young”, its participants – judges and prosecutors – have already managed to violate laws and ethical principles. They have got involved in numerous corruption scandals.

Judges being tried

Recently the Latvian court system has come into spotlight for various reasons, but most importantly due to the detention of Ziedonis Strazds, judge at Zemgale Suburb Court. He was detained on August 5, 2012, for money-driven abuse of office, employment of nonexistent persons and money withdrawal from their bank accounts.

Riga Regional Court judge Skaidrite Buivide was named as a suspect. She was allegedly backing the scheme of employing fake staff. Both of the judges were imposed non-custodial security measures. But they both fell ill shortly after being interrogated by the Corruption Prevention and Combating Bureau.

It should be added that on August 20 Justice Minister, Janis Bordans, launched disciplinary action against Strazds. The respective document was sent to the Court Administration. However, when the paper reached the Judicial Disciplinary Committee, its Chairman chose to send it back to the Justice Minister. The Chair was seeking to prevent deficiencies and meet the requirements laid down in the Law on Disciplinary Liability, Article 3, Part 2 and 3. Bordans said he did not see why the Judicial Disciplinary Committee had opted for such a move. He raised concern that it was a bid to delay the proceedings. Nevertheless, Bordans stressed that the disciplinary proceedings would not be withdrawn.

Under the Latvian law, judges’ reputation must be impeccable. But in practice they are allowed to go on working even when they are suspected of having committed some criminal offense. They can do it as long as the Saeima (Parliament) does not dismiss them.

Although criminal proceedings have been launched against Strazds, he was not banned from working as a judge. He and Buivide chose not to keep working. But they did not do it out of respect for courts and labour laws. They were actually being very sly. Just like many other suspects, they fell ill and were “forced” to go on a sick leave. Besides, the law provides that a judge cannot be dismissed without his explanation that shall be assessed also after criminal proceedings have been launched. This means that Strazds would be merely forbidden to keep serving as the Chairman of Riga City Zemgale Suburb Court.

This is not a unique case. Judges have already previously managed to get involved into all kinds of scandals and tarnish the reputation of their fair colleagues.

Back on June 1, 2006, the corruption watchdog detained judge Valda Strode, head of Daugavpils Land Register Office. The Supreme Court sentenced her to imprisonment for two years with confiscation of property. Aina Freimane, judge of Jurmala Land Register Office, has also been caught abusing office. She was imposed half-a-year-long suspended sentence and a fine.

Similarly, back in September, 2008, Diana Masina from Riga City Latgale District Court was also accused of intentionally coming up with an unlawful ruling. She was imposed a two-year- and-six-month long suspended sentence with a probationary period of two years. She was also applied a fine of 3 200 lats ($ 5 926) for abuse of office.

History of Latvian courts also features cases with incomprehensible income of judges. In fact, back in 2006 ex-judge of Riga District Court, Valdemars Subrovskis, became a millionaire. He sold a land plot in the Latvian city of Sigulda for 970 000 lats ($1.79m).

Also, when he chose to step down, his income statement showed he had managed to shed 417 000 lats (772 222) in less than a year’s time. It should be added that the scandalous book Legal Proceedings as a Kitchen (Latvian: Tiesasanas ka Kekis) features a character, allegedly inspired by the judge.

Of all the notorious cases, the one with Vidzeme District Court Chair Irena Polikarpova and judge Beatrise Talere stands out the most. The first instance court jailed both of the ladies for eight years, but they appealed to the Supreme Court. This was the very first time when criminal proceedings were launched against judges, who had not stepped down or been dismissed.

The appeal was supposed to be heard on October, 2010. Although the first instance court did not arrest the judges, they were banned from leaving the country and approaching specific people as well as places. In July 2010, Talere died after a protracted illness, but Polikarpova was imposed three-year imprisonment and partial seizure of her property.

Similarly, on June, 2012, the Judicial Disciplinary Committee called on the Parliament to dismiss Daugavpils judge Ernests Joksts. He was said to have intentionally violated the law when ruling on some criminal case. Having held a hearing on November, 2011, the judge said a complete ruling would be read on November 24. But without a good reason, he failed to comply with the deadline and did not even declare that no ruling could be expected. Thus, he breached Criminal Law Article 530 Part 2 and 3, as well as Article 49, Paragraph 1. Taking into account that disciplinary action had already been brought against him twice, the Judicial Disciplinary Committee opted for asking the Parliament to dismiss him.

Continuing to enumerate various scandals around judges, one must not miss out on Juris Freimanis, whose activities suggest close friendship with Ventspils politicians.

BNN already reported, Freimanis is no stranger to the Ventspils political elite. Back in 2002, Laimonis Strujevics, the former Economy Minister and the current head of Ventspils municipal Economy Department, submitted a claim against journalist Aivars Ozolins about disrespect to the dignity. Back then, when ruling in favour of his Ventspils fellow, Freimanis felt as an expert in the field of psychological conscience.

He said the ruling was based on generally accepted psychological knowledge that people are vulnerable. The ruling left us all pondering whether journalists must watch out not to hurt anyone too much.

The judge’s current day-to-day, however, features rulings in relation to the rights of Ventbunkers shareholders. Decisions always seem to satisfy the needs of Aivars Lembergs’ follower – Olafs Berkis.

“Freimanis’ September 18 ruling is outrageous. It is legally controversial and clearly shows that the judge has not even tried to understand the claim, merely accepting what his loyal clients say,” says Aivars Gobins, representative of AS Ventbunkers.

According to him, judge Freimanis dares openly serving Ventspils money bags – Berkis and Olegs Stepanovs. He does what their lawyers say, just like when he was receiving calls from lawyer “Gutups” (a character in Legal Proceedings as a Kitchen, allegedly inspired by lawyer Andris Grutups).

Indeed, Freimanis’ repuation is far from an impeccable one. Journalist Lato Lapsa’s book Legal Proceedings as a Kitchen also features some Juris Frimanis, a character allegedly inspired by Freimanis. The book revealed unlawfully tapped phone conversations between Grutups (a close person to the People’s Party) and Latvian court staff, as well as those in charge of home affairs.

In Legal Proceedings as a Kitchen, “Gutups” offers “Frimanis” a copy of his book on the Latvian property reform. The judge says he would like to have one, but the lawyer then insists that it is better to copy the best pages.

Prosecutors being tried

It is not that judges are the only slaves of money. Also prosecutors do not mind cashing in.

Back on October 20, 2008, the Corruption Prevention and Combatting Bureau detained Jurmala prosecutor Irina Bogdanova. She was caught accepting a bribe of 15 000 lats ($ 27 777), but the total amount was supposed to reach 25 000 lats ($ 46 290). She was allegedly demanding the money in return for a favorable ruling.

On April 26, 2004, the anti-corruption office detained Juris Ziemelis, prosecutor at the Riga Jurisdiction Prosecutor’s Office. He was caught accepting a bribe of 10 000 dollars (LVL 5 530). The man was suspected of demanding the bribe in return for withdrawal of criminal appeal.

The particular case shocked the system, with then-Attorney General Janis Maizitis saying that he was already tired of unfair prosecutors.

Law enforcement authorities have also detained two prosecutors from the Specialized Prosecutor’s Office of Organized Crime and other branches. Stanislavs Nazarovs and Aigars Cusko were detained back in 2003.

In June 2002, the criminal police detained Arturs Krievs, a prosecutor at the Vidzeme District Prosecutor’s Office. He was caught offering a bribe to some Valmiera prosecutor, so that she would dismiss certain criminal proceedings.

Also Kurzeme district court prosecutor, Vladimirs Cerikovs, has been detained for accepting a bribe of 2 000 lats ($ 3 703). Back in 2001, Daugavpils prosecutor Aleksejs Margevics was caught accepting a bribe of 5 000 lats ($ 9 259).

All these are just a couple of countless other examples showing that frequently court decisions are being taken at a dinner table among friendly judges, prosecutors and advocates.

While the Latvian court system remains surrounded by numerous scandals, they cast shadows over any confidence that it is the right place to seek the truth.

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