Thursday, October 6, 2011

Latvian police deliberately detain, intimidate peaceful protestors

Three persons spontaneously protesting against the actions of a political party and three bystanders were detained by Latvian police in the capital Riga on October 5 and taken to a police station for "identification". There they had a sign written on a sheet and a t-shirt with a slogan on it confiscated. According to media reports, the police gave no reason for confiscating the items, one of which was a sheet with a slogan labeling former Latvian president Valdis Zatlers "a traitor" and the t-shirt with a handwritten slogan "Zatlers, have you no shame?" in Latvian.
So-called administrative charges have been filed against all six persons detained in connection with the protest and they face jail term of up to 15 days and fines of up to LVL 25 (around USD 50).
Following their release, the protestors told Latvian media they would probably not hold a spontaneous protest again, since some of them have small children and cannot risk being detained by police.
The protestors had gathered answering a call on Facebook and social networks to protest plans by the former president's recently founded political party, the Zatlers' Reform Party (ZRP) to form a coalition government with the Harmony Center party, seen by the protestors as pro-Russian and a potential threat to Latvia's national identity and independence. The ZRP was founded earlier this summer after Zatlers, then still president, set in motion a dismissal of Latvia's parliament, the Saeima, which was overwhelming approved by referendum in July. In subsequent elections on September 17, the ZRP came in second to the Harmony Center with 22 seats in the 100-seat Saeima and almost immediately made overtures to bring Harmony Center, with 31 seats, into government.
The party, supported mainly by Latvia's ethnic Russian voters, is seen as "pro-Russian" by many and has been accused of denying that Latvia was occupied by the Soviet Union from 1940 until independence was regained in 1991. For many Latvians, this interpretation of historical events is the local equivalent of "holocaust denial", and led to impassioned comments on internet portals once it became clear that the ZRP wants to include Harmony Center (Latvian abbreviation SC) in the new government almost at any cost.
While the protestors had not applied to demonstrate under Latvian law and local ordinances, they maintain they were not creating a disturbance or blocking traffic. Police have earlier stood aside when spontaneous protests have occured, including another gathering near the Saeima building to protest the ZRPs policies, which saw up to 20 people standing in a street in front of the Saeima. Police also did not intervene when several dozen protestors gathered in front of Latvia's "Government House", the Cabinet of Ministers building, last year to spontaneously protest the arrest of an internet activist who had obtained confidential data on government and municipal salaries in the wake of austerity policies. Those protestors used water-soluble chalk to write slogans on the sidewalk by the government building, actions which could technically be seen as petty vandalism.
The use of temporary detention against anyone protesting on the street clearly creates what under US legal precedent would be seen as a "chilling effect" on the right to protest and on free expression.
The behavior of the police is an outrage, no less than that of the New York Police Department in arresting hundreds of demonstrators in the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations (so the US is no longer – and perhaps never really was – the benchmark for free expression and assembly). However, the US and European countries do set examples for public outrage and resistance to such attacks on free speech by the police, both by challenging such actions in the courts and by organizing and publicizing police abuse of free expression rights.
Police in most countries can use their discretion when there are technical violations of the law an/or municipal ordinances that cause no harm to third parties. By choosing to detain three demonstrators and three bystanders, the Latvian police must be presumed to have chosen to intimidate citizens who spontaneously choose to express a political viewpoint in public. This is a first small step toward authoritarianism.