23.03.2016 A call to defend freedom of expression in Latvia
Dear Sir or Madam,
I want to draw the attention of the honourable human rights organisation to the potential threat for the freedom of expression and association, related to the new draft which will be adopted by Latvian Parliament on April 7, 2016. The new norms of Criminal Law will make possible to punish by real imprisonment for peaceful expression of ideas, which do not conform with the position of the government and dominating ethno-nationalist vision of Latvia.
On 3 March 2016, the Parliament of Latvia adopted in the first reading draft amendments to the Criminal Law tabled by the two standing committees (on Legal Affairs and on National Security) and prepared by three Latvian security services. These amendments drastically change the chapter on the “Crimes against State”.
The new draft (No. 514/Lp12) criminalizes any, also non-violent action against Latvian independence, sovereignty, territorial integrity, state power or state structure (the new Article 80. In the annotation to the bill, it is claimed that overthrowing state power can also refer to non-violent actions) as well as “establishment of organization” aiming to act against the same interests of Latvia (new Article 80.1), The draft criminalizes also “public calls for an action against state independence, sovereignty or territorial integrity, overthrowing state power or changing the state structure” (new Article 81), as well as “assistance to another state or foreign organization” in its “harmful activities against the security interests” of Latvia (new Article 81.1). All these provisions envisage a sanction of up to 5-8 years’ imprisonment, even in the absence of violence or calls for violence.
The amendments have been considered in accordance with the urgent procedure, which means that draft is to be adopted in two, not three readings. Therefore, the next reading (scheduled for 7 April) will be a final one. The President cannot veto a law adopted in such procedure; he expressed some concerns about the draft. Besides, the President is currently ill, but Acting President, Inara Murniece, voted in favour of amendments.
The bill’s Annotation and an article by the head of the parliamentary National Security Commission, Solvita Aboltina, both invoke the notions of “hybrid war” and “information warfare” to justify the amendments. So, the bill is obviously intended to apply to the field protected by freedom of expression. Ms. Aboltiņa wrote: “The draft law will criminalise the activities aimed against vital interests of the Republic of Latvia”. The draft’s Annotation expresses the same thought: “…the draft provides criminal penalty for any activity, which does not conform to the Constitution of the Republic of Latvia and threatens the vital interests of the Republic of Latvia”. In the conditions when the state vital interests are defined by current government, the draft may become a tool of oppression of any critical view concerning state policy and any peaceful attempt to change the Constitution.
Not only opposition activists, but also some of the mainstream media, have expressed the opinion that upcoming criminalization of vague offences will have a chilling effect on public criticism of government policy.
Similar vague terms in criminal legislation have been criticized by the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission in 2014. The European Court of Human Rights, too, has pointed in a series of judgments, that peaceful advocacy for radical reforms and even for secession is protected.
Finally, legal advisors of the Parliament itself have drawn attention to the fact that some of the actions intended to be criminalized are actually protected by the Constitution.
I consider the draft amendments to undermine the freedom of expression. Procedurally, I find that the bill deserves careful consideration without urgent procedure. Besides, there is a reasonable proposal by a former head of the Constitutional Court - to submit the bill for evaluation to the Venice Commission before final decision.
I want to ask for your kind assistance in organising the international influence on Latvian authorities in order to reject the controversial draft.
Tatjana Ždanoka, Member of the European Parliament
 http://titania.saeima.lv/LIVS12/SaeimaLIVS12.nsf/0/30EDC058E283C869C2257F6A003B9620?OpenDocument (LV)
 http://rus.tvnet.lv/novosti/politika/320129-prjezidjent_popravki_o_prjedotvraschjenii_ugrozi_gibridnoy_voyni_nuzhdajutsja_v_pjerjerabotkje (RU)
 http://titania.saeima.lv/LIVS12/SaeimaLIVS2_DK.nsf/0/7653F275B8B6C0EDC2257F6B004B52F1?OpenDocument (LV)
 http://www.delfi.lv/news/comment/comment/solvita-aboltina-gatavi-sargat-latvijas-suverenitati-ari-informativa-un-hibridkara-apstaklos.d?id=47133375 (LV)
 http://nra.lv/viedokli/elita-veidemane/166341-aferists-un-valsts-drosiba.htm and http://www.pietiek.com/raksti/pat_par_publisku_aicinajumu_grozit_valsts_iekartu_plano_cietumsodu_lidz_pieciem_gadiem (LV) http://www.ves.lv/elita-vejdemane-o-takoj-demokratii-kak-v-latvii-dazhe-stalin-ne-mechtal/ (RU)
 http://www.venice.coe.int/webforms/documents/default.aspx?pdffile=CDL-AD%282014%29025-e Context of the relevant amendments in paras. 11-13, analysis in paras. 107-131, conclusion in paras. 138-139. Advocacy for fundamental reforms has also been deemed to be legitimate in other opinions of the commission: http://www.venice.coe.int/webforms/documents/default.aspx?pdffile=CDL-AD%282014%29010-e (para. 73), http://www.venice.coe.int/webforms/documents/default.aspx?pdffile=CDL-AD%282004%29025-e (para. 7), http://www.venice.coe.int/webforms/documents/default.aspx?pdffile=CDL-AD%282014%29043-e (para. 49)
 Socialist Party and Others v. Turkey, no. 21237/93, 25 May 1998, para. 47; Stankov and the United Macedonian Organisation Ilinden v. Bulgaria, nos. 29221/95 and 29225/95, 2 October 2001, para. 97; Tanase v. Moldova, no. 7/08, 27 April 2010, para. 167; Murat Vural v. Turkey, no. 9540/07, 21 October 2014, para. 66
 http://titania.saeima.lv/LIVS12/saeimalivs12.nsf/0/8A909A49142C54D2C2257F79003C51AA?OpenDocument (LV)
 http://www.lsm.lv/lv/raksts/latvija/zinas/kutris-bargie-sodi-par-noziegumiem-pret-valsti-janodod-vertesanai-venecijas-komisija.a173992/ (LV) http://rus.tvnet.lv/novosti/politika/320136-popravki_k_ugolovnomu_zakonu_o_prjestupljenijah_protiv_gosudarstva_sljedujet_pjerjedat_na_ocjenku_vjenjecianskoy_komissii (RU)