Lavents v. Latvia

Application No. 58442/00 (November 28, 2002)
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Country: Latvia
Region: Europe
Year: 2002
Court: European Court of Human Rights
Health Topics: Prisons
Human Rights: Right to due process/fair trial, Right to family life, Right to liberty and security of person
Tags: Detainee, Detention, Prison conditions

L, who was a Latvian national, was the former chairman of the supervisory board of Latvia’s largest bank. The bank went into liquidation, causing severe damage to the national economy and the financial ruin of many. L was suspected of the offence of sabotage for having authorized the transfer of approximately 139 million euros, more than half the bank’s credit, to a Russian bank in exchange for an undertaking to make a payment in the form of Russian government bonds.

On 1 June 1995, L was formally declared a suspect on the charge of sabotage and questioned and, on 28 June 1995, he was placed under investigation. On 14 July 1995, after an order was made for his detention pending trial, L was imprisoned. During the investigation, L’s pre-trial detention was extended several times and ultimately he was detained for more than six years, in spite of numerous applications for his release. During that period he suffered from serious heart problems and had to be hospitalized. On 12 June 1997, the case was assigned for trial in the Riga Regional Court. After suffering from a heart attack during a hearing on 14 October 1997, L was placed under house arrest, a measure that was criticized by the Prime Minister and the Minister of Justice.

Because of political pressure, on 15 October 1997, the judges in charge of the case withdrew and a different trial bench of the same court was assigned. Also, in October 1997, a judge ordered the seizure and examination of all of L’s correspondence, including letters from his lawyers.

L was again imprisoned on 2 September 1998. All of his applications for release were denied on the basis of the serious nature of the crime. Because of his poor health he was again admitted to hospital, both in the prison and outside establishments, where by court order he was denied family visits.

During trial, L challenged the presiding judge and two other judges, accusing them of bias and concealing pieces of exonerating evidence. Claiming that provisions of the Criminal Code had been seriously violated, thereby proving the lack of impartiality of the tribunal, L filed several requests to challenge the President of the Court, S, who had made declarations to the press letting people believe that her opinion was that L was guilty, as well as the whole trial bench. Such requests were not successful. On 28 December 2001, L was convicted and sentenced to nine years’ imprisonment. L filed an appeal with the Supreme Court, which was still pending at the time of the ECHR case.

On 28 December 2001, L filed an application with the Court alleging violations of Articles 5, 6 and 8 of the ECHR. The complaint was declared partly admissible on 7 June 2001.

 

[Adapted from INTERIGHTS summary, with permission]

The Court held that:

(1) L complained that the length of his pre-trial detention, which included the hospital stays and house arrest was over six years, exceeded what was reasonable in violation of Article 5(3);

(2) the question of whether or not a period of detention was reasonable could not be assessed in the abstract;

(3) continued detention could be justified in a given case only if there were specific indications of a genuine requirement of public interest which, notwithstanding the presumption of innocence, outweighed the rule of respect for individual liberty;

(4) the persistence of reasonable suspicion that the person arrested had committed an offence was a condition sine qua non for the lawfulness of the continued detention, but after a certain lapse of time it no longer sufficed;

(5) the justifications provided by the Regional Court in the order ruling that L had to be maintained in detention and in the decisions rejecting L’s requests to be released, were brief and abstract;

(6) the reference made by the Regional Court in most of its rulings to L’s personality as a justification of the deprivation of liberty was not convincing either;

(7) the argument provided by the State regarding the necessity to ensure that L’s appearance before the relevant authorities in order to intensify the review of the case had to be rejected, and the State was, therefore, in violation of Article 5(3);

(8) with regard to Article 5(4), L complained about the lack of effective judicial review of his detention;

(9) judicial proceedings referred to in Article 5(4) do not always need to be attended by the same guarantees as those required under Article 6(1) for civil or criminal litigation; nonetheless, the procedure followed has to have a judicial character and give to the individual guarantees appropriate to the kind of deprivation of liberty in question;

(10) the Regional Court, in charge of judging the merits of the case as well as deciding on L’s requests for release, was neither impartial nor established by law and, therefore, in violation of Article 5(4);

(11) as to Article 6(1), L complained that his right to a fair trial within a reasonable time and by an independent and impartial tribunal established by law had been violated;

(12) the period to be taken into consideration started on the day L was first interrogated as a suspect and ended on the day the court of first instance rendered its decision, that is a period of six years and seven months;

(13) the reasonableness of the length of proceedings had to be assessed in the light of the complexity of the case and the conduct of the applicant and the authorities;

(14) the case involved a large and complex investigation, a factor which was per se favourable to the justification of an extended length of the proceedings;

(15) the important delays caused by L's health problems were a factor of force majeure that could not be held against him;

(16) after the withdrawal of the trial bench, the case was assigned to a different trial bench who failed to review it until ten months and twenty eight days later and did not provide any reason for such inaction;

(17) as such, the judicial authorities had not shown the diligence required for the proper conduct of proceedings and were in violation of Article 6(1);

(18) L’s right to a hearing by an impartial and independent tribunal established by law was also violated as the bench of the Regional Court had not been constituted in accordance with the law and the chief judge’s statements to the press amounted to a definite position as to the outcome, and a distinct preference for a guilty verdict which was not compatible with Article 6, and caused L to fear that the judge in question lacked impartiality;

(19) as to Article 6(2), L alleged that his right to be presumed innocent was violated by the declarations made by S to the press;

(20) the members of a court should not have performed their duties with the preconceived belief the accused committed the offence charged, the burden of proof is on the prosecution, and any doubt benefits the accused;

(21) the declarations made by S were in violation of such principles and thereby of Article 6(2);

(22) as to Article 8, L complained that measures ordering a seizure and examination of his letters, and forbidding his family visitation were unjustified and disproportionate;

(23) Article 176 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, under which the judge ordered the seizure of L’s correspondence, and which allows such measures for persons accused of serious crimes, did not indicate with sufficient clarity the scope and manner of the power conferred on authorities and, therefore, had not been prescribed by law in violation of Article 8;

(24) L’s young daughter and wife were not allowed to visit him during several periods of time, the longest having lasted one year and seven months; such absolute measures were not necessary in a democratic society and therefore in violation of Article 8; and

(25) the judgment constitutes in and of itself just satisfaction, but the State is to pay 15,000 euros for costs and expenses (and default interest at a rate based on the marginal lending rate of the European Central Bank with three percentage points).

 

[Adapted from INTERIGHTS summary, with permission]

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