Latvia, the Law and the EU - How a corrupt post communist country abused the trust of the EU

The aftermath of the Parex affair raises troubling questions over the EU's attempt to create a trans national law enforcement system, writes Steve Komarnyckyj for EUToday.

Ansis Ataols Berzins, a forty-four year old folk singer, computer specialist and scientist does not look like a fugitive from international law enforcement agencies. He has committed no murders nor rapes, never stolen nor assaulted anyone and is an accomplished accordion player and singer. Yet he has spent one year and eight months in prison in two European countries, Czechia and Latvia.

Ansis Ataols Berzins 2

However, the offences with which he was charged were fabricated and the prosecution raises important questions for Latvia and the EU. The Latvian president finally, symbolically, pardoned him on 11th September 2019 and acknowledged Latvia’s regret for its ‘disproportionate’ actions, however, it does not compensate for the time stolen from him nor the damage to his health.

Nevertheless, the EU needs to examine its legislation and the European arrest warrant in relation to his case. How can its trans national law enforcement legislation be applied fairly when some countries, such as Latvia, will abuse it for political ends?

Why have the owners of Parex and so many of its employees who are the real criminals in this story never been prosecuted? Why did the EU assist in bailing out Parex without ensuring that its criminal owners were brought to justice?

Berzins's story begins on January 13 2009. Parex bank had collapsed in 2008 having been comprehensively looted by its owners Valerijs Kargins and Viktors Krasovickis (pictured below). They had extracted funds from the bank by various often blatantly fraudulent manoeuvres, including loans to themselves on very favourable terms. The large scale fraud at the bank had resulted in Parex being in negative equity and unable to withstand the banking crisis of 2008. The collapse of the bank and the financial crisis hit Latvians hard.

Valerijs Kargins And Viktors Krasovickis

Public employees didn't get paid and the country teetered on the brink of bankruptcy. When the Latvian government decided to invest millions in Parex to bail out the bank it set off an explosion.

Many Latvians understood that the bank was, as Berzins says, ‘set up with the involvement of KGB employees who were accused of corruption and money laundering’. On 13th January 2009 approximately ten thousand Latvians gathered in Dome Square in central Riga to demand the resignation of the country's parliament. Berzins was one of them.

He was by his own account a Latvian patriot who had dreamed of the country's independence when he was a boy.

As a young man he had stood on the barricades in 1991 when his country confronted the Soviet authorities and defended its independence. However, during the years that followed he saw the large scale looting of his country. He had not attended rallies before 13th January 2009 because he saw them as being in the interest of a particular political force.

However, on that date, which was also the date of the first barricades against the Soviet interior ministry troops in Riga in 1991, (It was also importantly the date of a demonstration against the Tsarist regime in 1905 when troops had fired on the protestors.) there was a sense that the protest would unite all Latvia. He saw attending the protest as being his ‘duty as a citizen’. The looting of Parex and the subsequent bail out by the Latvian government had enraged him. When he arrived at the rally he was struck by the indifference of the authorities. No politician had come to address the crowd of approximately ten thousand people. The organisers of the rally were also at a loss and decided to end the demonstration when the protestors were at their most active.

This provoked the crowd to take matters into their own hands and move away from Dome Square. The protestors decided spontaneously to march to the Latvian parliament and make their demands there. The mixture of an enraged leaderless crowd and a corrupt political class protecting the Russian Mafiosi looting Latvia proved fatal to the protest. Berzins and many others began throwing stones at the Parliament trying to make politicians who were deaf to justice hear them.

He did not attack the police but ultimately he would be charged with ‘petty hooliganism’ at the police station. Ultimately, this was replaced by a criminal charge and categorised as a particularly serious crime.

Berzins argues that he had done nothing wrong and that the government was to blame for the protests. Indeed, the Latvian authorities hav admitted as much by pardoning him. He argues, pointing out that six of the witnesses, who were also all policemen, provided testimony that was absolutely identical, that the criminal case against him was an utter fabrication. However, the decision to prosecute him was taken, he believes, at the highest levels of the state. Berzins notes that, ‘many prosecutors and judges understood the absurdity of the situation but they all did their duty’. The police themselves had placed his life in danger by tying him up and forcing him to lie down where some of the stones thrown at the Parliament were falling.

In the decade that followed Berzins was frequently in conflict with Latvia. In 2015, the courts bent the law to try to imprison him for not attending meetings with the probation service which had not actually been assigned to him.

In 2016, when he was living in Czechia because of a university internship, Latvia issued an international arrest warrant. He was ultimately arrested by the Czech authorities in March 2017 and violently assaulted there in 2018 while in an isolation cell.The conditions were brutal in the extreme with violence occurring routinely. Czechia denied his appeals and he was extradited to Latvia in March 2018. A Latvian judge declined to release him in July 2018 despite the injustice of his case gaining notoriety in Latvia and protests in court. Berzins won two cases in the constitutional court after he pursued the authorities for the unjust conditions of his imprisonment. One case concerned the bar on him using a laptop to study for his doctorate in prison, the other focused on gender discrimination against him as a man. He was finally released on 30 November 2018.

Berzins's case illustrates how a corrupt political class can abuse the law to terrorise critical voices and, ultimately, the failure of the EU to ensure countries like Czechia and Latvia are free of mafia style politics. Berzins spent almost two years in prison and was subject to an international arrest warrant. The criminals who looted Parex have not spent one day in prison and travel freely around the EU while residing in the kind of luxury resort favoured by Latvian and Russian gangsters.

I asked Berzins whether he would change anything and what he thought should be done to punish the real criminals in his story. He said, 'We should understand that the propaganda about the EU as a citadel of justice is just a fairy-tale. The employees of law enforcement agencies there use the power given to them without regard to human rights and justice. The only way to live normally is to avoid all contact with them.'

Berzins's words may not offer us any solutions but they show the difference between the image of the EU and what is often the reality in its member states. Will they be heard in Brussels and Strasbourg?

Read also by Steve Komarnyckyj:

The KGB enters the European Parliament

The Ghosts of Christmas Past...

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Steve Komarnyckyj

Steve Komarnyckyj

Steve Komarnyckyj's literary translations and poems have appeared in Index on Censorship, Modern Poetry in Translation and many other journals. He is the holder of two PEN awards and a highly regarded English language poet whose work has been described as articulating "what it means to be human" (Sean Street). He runs Kalyna Language Press with his partner Susie and three domestic cats.

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