Monday, March 23, 2009

Data inspectorate goes after Penguin Movement

The Latvian Data State Inspectorate has summoned the administrator of the website of the so-called Penguin Movement to explain what it claims were violations of laws and regulations with regard to handling and protecting personal data.
The claims related to several articles by the journalist and commentator Māris Zanders, where he allegorically and indirectly hinted at the mobile phone numbers and home locations of several Latvian politicians. The idea was that these unnamed persons with indirectly described numbers and addresses could get calls, text messages or "visits" by citizens wishing to express their dissatisfaction (or praise, you never know) of the policies and behavior  of the Latvian political elite.
The administrator of, known by his first name Atis, has been asked to explain these articles in person at the Inspectorate on March 26.  Details of the letter to Atis (in Latvian) can be found here.  This summons could be considered the first serious attempt to harass the Penguins.
The Penguin Movement is an informal network of persons who support non-violent protests and direct action against what they see as an insensitive, arrogant and corrupt ruling elite in Latvia. It derives its name from a statement by former Prime Minister Ivars Godmanis in a New Year's Eve address that in cold weather (the present economic recession) the penguins (ordinary Latvian citizens) should huddle together. 
My advice -- move the website to a US or other foreign hosting location which values freedom of speech (especially concerning public figures) above so-called data security issues. 

Monday, March 16, 2009

Banned march takes place without incident

The banned march to commemorate members of the World War II Latvian Legion and small counterdemonstrations took place despite an official ban. More than 1000 police did not interfere with any of the actvities, although there were a small number of arrests. This makes the ban and the talk of serious threats to public order sound ridiculous. But at least people were allowed to exercise their freedom of assembly and speech. Here is a short video I took:

New minister threatens police for protest action

Linda Murniece, Latvia's new Minister of the Interior, has threatened to fire any police officer who participates in a symbolic 10-minute stoppage of non-essential work today, March 16.
The police union had called for the action to bring attention to wage cuts and poor working conditions as well as the general state of the Latvian economy. The union stressed that work related to saving lives or interventions against ongoing crimes would not be affected.
The union has, under threats from Murniece, called off its action on a day when possibly hundreds of police will be massed in downtown Riga to prevent both a march by veterans of the World War II Latvian Legion and their supporters, as well as counter-demonstrations by so-called anti-fascist groups.
Murniece's statement comes after a decision by Riga city authorities to essentially suspend the right of free assembly and free expression because of unspecified threats. The new minister is taking a repressive hard line against her own employees, many of whom may be reluctantly doing their duty in a dubious repression of basic civil rights.
In 2006, the veteran's commemorative march was stopped by building a fence around the entire Freedom Monument area, but was permitted again in 2007 and 2008, with police separating mutually hostile groups.
My take on this is that this action is not so much aimed at the Legion march and its opponents as it is to make a show of force to deter potential rioters should the first economically-motivated disorders break out later in the spring. The government was caught off-guard and scared by the January 13 riots, which may be a prelude to wider civil disorder as the weather gets warmer.
On March 16, however, the hard line may backfire as people angered by the suspension of their rights of assembly may gather to defy the ban on organized marches and rallies.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Court upholds March 16 assembly ban

An administrative district court in Latvia has upheld a ban on all gatherings near the Freedom Monument on Monday, March 16, rejecting appeals by three different groupings seeking to hold marches or rallies on this day. 
The "main event" on March 16 has for years been a commemorative walk or march by former members of the Latvian Waffen SS, most of whom were drafted during the German occupation of Latvia and fought against the Red Army . March 16 is the only time when both divisions of the Latvian Legion fought side by side on the Eastern front.
The march has attracted protests by groups claiming the event glorifies Nazism and insults the victims of German aggression during World War II. Former legionnaires have testified that they were not Nazi sympathizers but fought to prevent the Red Army from re-conquering Latvia and continuing Stalin's terror. They say that whether they were drafted or volunteered, their intention was to defend Latvia and had nothing to do with Nazi ideology.
Opponents of the Legionnaires' march say there was some overlap between Latvian police units, which may have been involved in repression and violence against non-combatants, and the Legion, which was later formed by absorbing some of these units as well as conscripting tens of thousands of Latvian youths in 1943 and 1944. They are also offended by the claim that there could be any justification for having fought on the Nazi German side (there are Jews and descendants of Holocaust survivors among some of Latvia's "anti-fascist" groups).
There has been some tough talk by outgoing Minister of the Interior Mareks Seglins (staying on as Minster of Justice) about large numbers of riot police armed with tear gas and water-cannon being present on March 16. This seems an overreaction to the "main event" by octogenerians, but younger supporters and pro-Russian youths could present a danger of renewed rioting after the events of January 13.
Indeed, it may be the authorities' fear that any tense, politically charged public gathering could trigger new disorders. so better ban everything. But this amounts to a de-facto blanket declaration of emergency and suspension of civil rights in Latvia.
In past years, despite the disgrace of putting a riot fence around the Freedom Monument in 2006, the police have managed to keep opposing groups apart and there is no reason to believe it cannot be done again.
The court ruling may well backfire provoking all sides to defy the ban and assert their free speech and assembly rights. Some kind of disorder -- maybe even a new riot -- may be the unintended result of this attack on fundamental freedoms in Latvia. 

Monday, March 9, 2009

Riga city council suspends freedom of assembly on March 16

The Riga city council has effectively suspended the right to free assembly near the Freedom Monument on March 16, a date associated with commemorations of the World War II Latvian Legion as well as counter-demonstrations claiming the Legion memorials glorify Nazism.
Several organizations, including the war veterans welfare association Daugavas Vanagi had applied to march or gather near the monument. The city council imposed the ban citing security fears.
The so-called Legionnaires' march was entirely banned in 2006 with fences surrounding the Freedom Monument area in what was seen as a scandalous ban on free speech and assembly rights. It was allowed under police protection in 2007 and 2008, accompanied by largely verbal protests and counter-demonstrations.
Also deprived of their righ to assemble are at least two "anti-fascist" groups and various radical nationalist organizations, who see March 16 as an opportunity to parade their views. According to press reports, the dwindling number of surviving legionnaires simply want to commenorate their fallen comrades.
The Latvian Waffen SS Legion was formed in 1943, mainly by conscripting over 100 000 Latvian youths in German-occupied Latvia. These troops fought almost exclusively against the Soviet Red Army on the Eastern Front in what most Latvian soldiers at the time percieved as an desperate effort to prevent a new Soviet occupation of Latvia. War veterans vehemently deny any Nazi sympathies.
March 16, 1944 was a date when both Latvian divisions, under Latvian command (but as part of the German military) fought physically side-by-side at a location just inside Russia. Hence it has been chosen as a day to commemorate those who fell.
The anti-fascist groups, however, see the march as a glorification of Nazism and maintain, with some historical support, that there was a mixing of personnel into the Legion from the so-called Latvian Police Batallions (formed before the Legion) which may have been involved in crimes against civilians. They also point to the Nazi SS regalia that the Legionnaires bore in addition to tokens of Latvian patriotism, such as badges in the color of the Latvian flag.
No wartime German symbols have been displayed at Legion marches. The anti-fascists, which include a number of Latvian and former-Soviet Jews, are also concerned that the commemoration is attracting young radical nationalists and neo-Nazis. The latter actually do glorify the Third Reich.
The free speech issues are clear -- all groups, seperated reasonably in time or space (as in the past) and under sufficient police protection (as in the past) have an inalienable right to freedom of speech and assembly on March 16. This includes both the anti-fascist groups that have been labeled as pro-Russian or pro-Communist by some, as well as nationalists or neo-Nazis merely voicing their views and beliefs, no matter how controversial or repugnant they may be. Not the least, the war veterans (men in their late 80s and early 90s) can hardly be seen as a threat to Latvia's security.
Perhaps the Riga authorities are spooked by the January 13 riots and see a danger in any large public gathering that incites passions. They forget that banning fundamental freedoms will excite additional passions (I don't think the Legions battles, in which my late father took part, were anything more than a historical tragedy) in those who feel that free speech should be defended at all costs. Maybe even tearing down a fence or two...