ECRI 3rd report on Latvia (excerpts on hate crimes/speech), 2007

I. FOLLOW-UP TO ECRI’S SECOND REPORT ON LATVIA

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Criminal law provisions

17. In its second report on Latvia, ECRI recommended that the Latvian authorities introduce a provision into criminal legislation explicitly enabling the courts to take into account the racist motives of the offender as an aggravating circumstance when sentencing.

18. ECRI notes with satisfaction that on 21 October 2006 racist motivation was introduced into the list of aggravating circumstances to be taken into account by the courts when sentencing (Article 48 of the Criminal Code). Therefore, committing an offence on racist grounds may now be considered as an aggravating circumstance for all criminal offences in Latvia.

19. In its second report on Latvia, ECRI recommended that the criminal law
provisions prohibiting racist speech address not only incitement to racial hatred but also cover cases where such speech takes the form of degrading or humiliating expressions based on characteristics such as national or ethnic origin. ECRI notes that until now no specific provision dealing with racist speech other than incitement to racial hatred has been introduced in the Criminal Code.

20. ECRI notes with interest that on 28 April 2005 a provision was added to Article 71 of the Criminal Code criminalising genocide, in order to prohibit incitement to genocide. The sentence provided for in this case is a deprivation of liberty for a term not exceeding eight years.

21. In June 2007, Articles 78 and 150 of the Criminal Code were replaced by new provisions aimed at combating incitement to racial hatred and racial discrimination. As a result of this amendment, the distinction between racial discrimination on the one hand and racist speech on the other hand has become clearer. The three new provisions which entered into force on 19 July 2007 are the following: firstly, Article 78-1 (Incitement to National, Ethnic and Racial Hatred) stipulates that actions, knowingly intended to incite national, ethnic or racial hatred or enmity, are penalised by imprisonment for a term not exceeding three years, or community service, or with a fine not exceeding sixty times the minimum monthly wage. Under Article 78-2, when such acts are accompanied by violence, fraud or threats, or committed by a group of persons, a State official, or a responsible employee of a corporation, or when they are committed by using a data processing system, the applicable sentence is deprivation of liberty for a
term not exceeding ten years. Secondly, Article 149-1 (Breaches of Prohibition of Discrimination) prohibits discrimination on the grounds of racial or ethnic membership, or other breaches of prohibited discrimination as provided in legislative enactments, if repeated within a one-year period. The applicable sanction is a fine not exceeding thirty times the minimum monthly wage4 . Lastly, Article 150 (Incitement to Religious Enmity) prohibits offence against a person’s religious feelings, or inciting enmity in relation to that person’s attitude towards religion or atheism. The applicable sanction is deprivation of liberty for a term not exceeding two years, or community service, or a fine not exceeding forty times the minimum monthly wage5.

Footnote 4 When such acts are committed under the same aggravating circumstances as those described under Article 78-2 (see above), the applicable sanction is deprivation of liberty for a term not exceeding two
years, or community service, or a fine not exceeding fifty times the minimum monthly wage

Footnote 5 When such acts are committed under the same aggravating circumstances as those described under Article 78-2 (see above), the applicable sanction is deprivation of liberty for a term not exceeding four
years, or community service, or a fine not exceeding eighty times the minimum monthly wage

Recommendations:

22. ECRI encourages the Latvian authorities in their efforts to review and fine-tune the criminal law provisions aimed at combating racism. Particular attention should be paid in this regard to racially motivated speech. In this respect, the Latvian authorities should take account of the section on criminal law provisions contained in ECRI’s General Policy Recommendation No 7 on national legislation to combat racism and racial discrimination.

23. In its second report on Latvia, ECRI encouraged the Latvian authorities to provide further training on the subject of racist expressions to all actors involved in the criminal justice system, from the police to the prosecuting authorities and judges, and to further raise their awareness of the need to actively counter manifestations of such phenomena. At the same time, ECRI stressed that ways to encourage victims of such acts to come forward should be considered.

24. As regards implementation of the existing criminal law provisions to combat racism and racial discrimination, the Latvian authorities have indicated that since the entry into force of the Criminal Code in 1999, Article 150 (Violation of equality rights of persons on the basis of their attitudes towards religion) and 151 (interference with religious rituals) have never been applied. From 1999 until the end of 2006, proceedings under Article 78 (violation of national or racial equality and incitement to national or racial hatred) were introduced in 26 cases, out of which 13 were initiated in 2005. These cases mostly concern instances of racist speech, but also racist violence. The majority of the cases initiated in 2005 and 2006 are still under investigation while some have been re-qualified as hooliganism or closed for a lack of evidence or on other grounds. In 2007, a total of 12 cases were initiated on the basis of Article 78 of the Criminal Code. There is only a small number of those cases which have been brought to court and ended up with conviction of the perpetrators (see below as concerns the sentences
handed down in cases of racist speech or racist violence).

25. Anti-racist NGOs have indicated that these figures do not reflect the real level of racist speech and violence in the country. They have put forward several factors to explain this situation as regards racist attacks. A first element to be taken into account is that too often, the police investigate racist attacks as “hooliganism” (prohibited in Article 231 of the Criminal Code) instead of applying Article 78-2 (racist violence). Therefore, the racist motivation of the perpetrators is not sufficiently taken into account, even where it is very obvious or easy to prove, as for instance in some cases where skinheads were involved. However, ECRI is pleased to note that apparently, in recent months, police have tended to take the racist motivation of a physical attack more into account when investigating. Good
practices such as training for police and judges as regards combating hate crime have been put into place by some NGOs or intergovernmental organisations. The authorities have indicated that the Latvian Judicial Training Centre organises legal training, seminars and courses for judges on several issues including racism and discrimination issues on a regular basis. However, a lot more remains to be done to raise the awareness of the police, the prosecution services and judges of the need to fight racism6.

Footnote 6 See also below, Section II Specific Issues – The need to fight racism and intolerance in Latvia.

26. Several elements have been cited as the main obstacles to full implementation of Article 78 with regard to racist speech. When the police are confronted with a complaint, they often refer it to experts in order to determine whether the speech can be qualified as incitement to racial hatred even in cases where the racist motivation is self-evident. The Latvian authorities have themselves stressed that there is a need to improve the expertise of police and prosecutors as regards racist speech in order to avoid requesting external expert advice before acting. Another argument sometimes put forward to justify the lack of prosecutions is freedom of expression, implying that people should be free to say and write anything they wish. However, ECRI recalls that the European Court of Human Rights has admitted in successive judgements that, under certain conditions, State authorities may restrict the exercise of this freedom by taking criminal sanctions against the authors of racist acts7 . Lastly, the lack of trust in police and the criminal justice system in general on the part of victims has also been put forward as an explanation for the low number of racist acts being reported to the police. People apparently feel discouraged from bringing a case before the court as they tend to believe that this would only be a waste of time.

Footnote 7 See also ECRI’s General Policy Recommendation N° 7 on national legislation to combat racism and racial discrimination, Paragraph 3: “The constitution should provide that the exercise of freedom of expression, assembly and association may be restricted with a view to combating racism. Any such restrictions should be in conformity with the European Convention on Human Rights”. See also the Explanatory Memorandum to Paragraph 3 and Paragraph 18 of General Policy Recommendation N° 7 which indicates the acts that the national legislation should penalise.

27. Another problem concerns the sentences handed down in cases of racist speech or racist violence. Anti-racist NGOs consider that until now the sentences pronounced under Article 78 and particularly 78-2 (racist violence) have been too lenient. It is only very recently that two persons were sentenced to a nonsuspended prison sentence of respectively 6 months and 8 months for a violent racist attack. Except for that case, maximum sentences given usually range from fines to suspended prison sentences. NGOs and the press have welcomed that fixed prison sentence as an indication that from now on courts will hand down more adequate sentences in cases of racial violence. ECRI feels that the police, prosecutors and judges lack awareness about the implementation of criminal law
provisions aimed at combating racism and intolerance, about what should be considered as racist and about the need to combat such phenomena through criminal law8.

Footnote 8 See also below, Section II Specific issues – The need to fight racism and intolerance in Latvia.

Recommendations

28. ECRI strongly recommends that Latvian police and judicial authorities fully investigate and prosecute racially motivated offences by acknowledging and taking into account the racist motivation of an offence.

29. ECRI recommends that the Latvian authorities take a more pro-active approach in providing adequate training to judges, prosecutors and the police. It recommends, in this regard, that the authorities make them fully aware of the issues pertaining to racism and racial discrimination so that they can better address them when the need arises. ECRI thus strongly encourages the Latvian authorities to provide sufficient funds for such endeavours.

30. ECRI recommends that the Latvian authorities continue and reinforce their efforts to inform the public about the existence of criminal law provisions for sanctioning racially motivated acts. It recommends that they take steps to encourage victims and witnesses to report such acts.

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II. SPECIFIC ISSUES

The need to fight racism and intolerance in Latvia

89. In this section, ECRI wishes to express its concern at reports from several sources according to which both racist violence and racist speech have been more prevalent in recent years in Latvia. Therefore, it would like to draw the Latvian authorities’ attention to this worrying trend and make specific recommendations in this field, which are complementary to those already made in other parts of this report35.

Footnote 35 See above, Criminal law provisions.

Racist violence

90. In its second report, ECRI already expressed its concern at the presence of Latvian and Russian racist extremist groups, including neo-Nazi groups, and at their activities in Latvia. ECRI called for a more vigorous response on the part of the Latvian authorities to the activities of such organisations.

91. ECRI has received worrying information from many different sources according to which the number of racially-motivated attacks has been on the rise since its last report. These attacks often take the form of verbal abuse accompanied by physical assault, sometimes resulting in a person being seriously injured. According to NGOs, there are a number of persons, particularly among the Roma community, who do not report such attacks to the police36, which makes it difficult to ascertain the real extent of this problem. There are also reports of antisemitic acts against property belonging to Jewish communities, including several cases of vandalism of Jewish cemeteries and the deliberate destruction of a religious monument.

Footnote 36 See above, Criminal law provisions, and Vulnerable group – The Roma communities

92. According to several sources, including representatives of visible minorities, members of visible minorities are feeling increasingly unsafe in some surroundings in Riga, particularly in the city centre and in the old town, mainly at night-time but also in daylight. They reportedly experience an increasingly aggressive behaviour on the part of groups of youngsters, often dressed and behaving as skinheads. During a public event on racism held in February 2006, the Latvian Minister of Foreign Affairs said that “Latvia is no longer protected from expressions of racism, which is particularly noticeable on the streets of Riga during the dark hours of the day and during the dark months”37.

Footnote 37 Press release from the Latvian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Latvia’s Foreign Minister: “Mutual cooperation between government, media and community can help diminish prejudice”, 10 February 2006.

93. The most vulnerable groups to such racist violence are visible minorities such as Africans, persons of African descent, Central and other Asians, and Roma, as well as Jews. For instance, a Rabbi experienced such a perilous situation in 2005, whereby he managed to escape a group of youngsters who were pursuing him and shouting antisemitic slogans at him. During the same year, similar events allegedly occurred to an Indian, an American of African descent and an Egyptian. Even more worrying are reports according to which the police do not always behave in an appropriate manner when victims come to complain to them about these racist attacks. In fact, there seem to be cases of police harassment of members of visible minorities who have come to police stations to bring a complaint. The publicly known case of a group of Somalis who went to the police in January 2007 to report that they had been beaten up is a regrettable example. According to several sources, they were sent from one police station to another before they could bring their complaint38.

Footnote 38. Concerning the police, see also above, Criminal law provisions, and Conduct of law enforcement officials.

94. ECRI has been informed by the Latvian authorities that, according to them, the number of skinhead groups in Latvia is rather low and that there is a special unit in the police keeping their activities under review. They consider that the situation is under control as these activities are not too intense. However, ECRI is concerned at numerous reports on the part of civil society according to which the authorities do not really control the situation. According to non official sources, skinheads and right wing extremist groups’ activities are on the rise both among ethnic Latvians and ethnic Russians, notably under the influence of regular contacts with similar groups outside Latvia. These groups are reportedly more visible and more organised throughout Latvia. It seems urgent for the police to monitor closely the situation in this field and for other authorities to try to find
solutions to counter the extreme-right tendencies amongst young people and other segments of society.

95. More generally, the main concern of experts in the fight against racism is the widespread denial of the problem of racist violence both on the part of the public and the authorities. Claiming that Latvia is a tolerant society, they tend to remain indifferent and/or undermine the problem by speaking of “isolated cases” without really recognising, or being aware of, the real number of violent manifestations of intolerance in the country. However, ECRI finds it encouraging that the President of Latvia as well as some high-level officials have made several statements drawing attention to the increasing level of intolerance in Latvia and to the need for urgent measures to respond to this trend. ECRI has also mentioned in other parts of the report that police, prosecutors and judges have begun to receive
training on how to combat hate crime. It seems that police patrols have increased on the streets of Riga, a factor which should help in preventing racist attacks from taking place. While welcoming these positive developments, ECRI considers that there is an urgent need for additional measures to combat racist violence, particularly to deal with the existence and activities of groups of skinheads.

Recommendations:

96. ECRI urges the Latvian authorities to monitor the situation as regards the presence and activities of the right wing extremist and skinhead groups in Latvia. Measures should be taken to address this problem in a proactive way, including through educational initiatives at school aimed at alerting young people of the dangers of racism and the need to fight against it. Such measures could be taken in co-operation with relevant NGOs working at grass-roots level.

97. ECRI urges the Latvian authorities to make further efforts to take a more
comprehensive approach to the phenomenon of racist violence, that does not focus exclusively on the promotion of tolerance and which includes the
implementation of criminal law provisions aimed at combating racist violence. ECRI believes that an effective response to racist violence in Latvia also requires efforts to identify and address the causes underlying this violence.

Use of racist expressions in the public discourse

98. In its second report on Latvia, ECRI underlined that it was fundamental that mainstream political parties take a clear stance against any extremist groups operating in Latvia.

99. ECRI notes that apparently no specific measures have been taken to deal with political parties whose members are responsible for racist acts or speech. However, numerous sources indicate that the recourse to racist expressions in public discourse, on the part of politicians as well as the media, more particularly in the written press and on the Internet, remains a problem and could even be on the increase. In the field of racism, intolerant speech takes two main forms in Latvia.

100. The first type of racist speech is geared towards immigrants, particularly newcomers, asylum seekers and refugees, and certain ethnic groups such as Roma. Religious minorities including Jews and Muslims are also a target of this discourse. Some politicians and the media express stereotypes and prejudice, and in some cases outright hate speech, towards these minority groups. As concerns Muslims, the main problem seems to lie in cases of sweeping statements associating Muslims with terrorism and in the existence of otherwise islamophobic speech, which are reflected in the media. All this has lead for instance, to initially negative reactions in the neighbourhood of a Muslim place of worship when it was opened. Antisemitic discourse is apparently increasing in Latvia, particularly on the Internet, for instance in the context of commemorations of the second world war events and the debate around the issue of a draft law on
compensations for confiscated properties belonging to members of the Jewish communities before the second world war.

101. The second type of racist speech in Latvia relates to the interethnic relations between Latvians and the Russian-speaking population39. Some media and some politicians, including from mainstream media and political parties, try to stir up interethnic tensions, mainly to attract voters and readers. They use intolerant speech to describe one group or the other. For instance, some Latvian media and politicians portray the Russian-speaking population as responsible for all the problems in the country, or as traitors or occupants who have no right to stay in the country and who should be expelled. On the other hand, some Russian-speaking media and politicians use generalisations to say that all Latvians are fascist, nationalists and intolerant people who impose “apartheid” on other ethnic groups. Regrettably, the intention is apparently to generate artificial tensions
between two communities who live side by side in a peaceful manner. Such
intolerant discourse is in stark contrast to the general behaviour of the society. In fact, surveys and polls clearly show that the two communities co-exist peacefully, with no serious tensions, even though they tend to keep to themselves40 . Such inflammatory speech can only be detrimental to the situation in the country. It is obvious that the conduct of media professionals as well as politicians has a great influence on the level of tensions in society at large.

Footnote 39 See also below, The situation of the Russian-speaking population

Footnote 40 See below, The situation of the Russian-speaking population

102. ECRI notes with interest that the Latvian authorities have taken measures to promote tolerance within Latvian society41. There are also reports of positive initiatives by the media, particularly in response to several interventions from representatives of minorities who have complained to them about the existence of racist material. When representatives of minority groups have asked to have racist material removed or to be given a right to reply, the media concerned have usually responded in a positive way. Some media are also willing to publish
information on the situation concerning racism and intolerance in Latvia. To mention only a few positive examples, in 2003, due to complaints from several sources, an advertisement for a political party was considered to be racist by a court and TV channels were not allowed to broadcast it anymore on these grounds. ECRI also notes the interesting initiative from civil society to adopt on 30 May 2006 a Declaration on Respect, Tolerance and Co-operation on the Internet, which was signed by the editors of Internet portals and representatives of associations, foundations, and public institutions. However ECRI has been informed that in practice, the presence of intolerant speech, particularly on public forums published on some portals which have signed the Declaration, has not really decreased since then.

Footnote 41 See also above, Education and awareness-raising.

103.ECRI believes that further steps should be taken to counter this phenomenon of the exploitation of intolerant discourse in politics and in the media. Where appropriate, Latvian authorities should make use of criminal law tools. This issue is addressed in another part of this report42. However, ECRI considers that there are complementary measures which could be taken to ensure that politicians and the media are not tempted to exploit interethnic tensions to further their own agenda. Such measures include self-regulatory mechanisms.

Footnote 42 See above, Criminal law provisions.

104. As far as the media are concerned, ECRI notes that there is no generally
applicable code of conduct which could include guidelines on how to deal with the problems of racism and intolerance. Nor is there a self-regulatory mechanism which could intervene in the case of intolerant material published in the media. ECRI has been informed that in some instances the National Human Rights Office (now the Ombudsman) contacted a media to draw its attention to the inflammatory aspect of the material it had published. The Minister for Special Assignments for Society Integration has also tried to intervene in some cases, but with the result that some commentators described this action as a censorship of the press by the government. The main interest in setting up an internal code of conduct and a self-regulatory mechanism is to monitor and respond to the problem of racist discourse before other institutions, such as the government, have to intervene.

105. The Parliament has a Code of Ethics according to which a Member of Parliament should not appeal to race, gender, skin colour, nationality, language, religious beliefs, social origin or state of health to justify his/her argumentation. ECRI draws attention to the principles laid down in the Charter of European Political Parties for a Non-Racist Society and hopes that these principles would be reflected in political life in Latvia. ECRI insists on the fact that political parties must resist the temptation to approach issues relating to members of minority groups or to interethnic relations in a negative fashion and should instead emphasise the positive contribution made by different ethnic and minority groups to Latvian society, economy and culture. Political parties should also take a firm stand against any form of racism and racial discrimination.

Recommendations:

106. ECRI urges the Latvian authorities to take steps to counter the use of racist discourse in politics and in the media. To this end it recalls, in this particular context, its recommendations formulated above concerning the need to ensure an effective implementation of the existing legislation against incitement to racial hatred. The authorities could envisage launching a general debate on the need for self-regulatory mechanisms in the political and media fields as concerns the problem of intolerant speech.

107. In addition, ECRI calls on the Latvian authorities to adopt ad hoc legal provisions specifically targeting the use of racist discourse by representatives of political parties, including, for instance, legal provisions allowing for a ban on free access in the pre-election period to public radio and television for those political parties whose members are responsible for racist acts or speech. ECRI also recommends that the Parliament amend its Code of Ethics to explicitly ban incitement to racial or religious hatred by Members of Parliament and to foresee adequate sanctions for the violation of this norm. Furthermore, ECRI draws the attention of the Latvian authorities to the relevant provisions contained in its General Policy Recommendation N°7 on national legislation to combat racism and racial discrimination, which provides guidelines in this field.

108. ECRI encourages the Latvian authorities to impress on the media, without encroaching on their editorial independence, the need to ensure that reporting does not contribute to creating an atmosphere of hostility and rejection towards members of any minority groups, including members of the Russian-speaking population, as well as immigrants – particularly newcomers – asylum seekers and refugees, certain ethnic groups such as Roma, and religious minorities such as Muslims or Jews. ECRI recommends that the Latvian authorities engage in a debate with the media and members of other relevant civil society groups on how this could best be achieved.


Document data: CRI(2008)2 adopted 29.06.2007, published 12.02.2008 Link: https://rm.coe.int/third-report-on-latvia/16808b58b3

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