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. 

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