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...

No comments: