RIGA, Latvia --The Prosecutor General of Latvia on March 26 dropped criminal defamation charges filed in 1992 against Tatyana Chaladze, a journalist living in Latvia at the time, but she will not be freed from jail before April 15, when the court that ordered her jailed will convene to officially take notice of the prosecutor's action. There is no habeus corpus proceeding under Latvian law that could get her freed without delay. Chaladze has been held since March 12 in the pre-trial detention facility at the Ilguciems Women's Prison in a suburb of Riga, the Latvian capital. She was arrested at the Latvian border crossing of Meitene while traveling to Latvia from the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad, where she has lived for several years.
The criminal defamation charges were brought by Alfreds Rubiks, the former hard-line leader of the Latvian Communist Party, for articles Chaladze wrote for Baltiskoye Vremje, a now-defunct Russian-language newspaper, alleging he was responsible for the disappearance of Communist Party funds ahead of the failed 1991 Soviet coup. Journalists familiar with Chaladze's work describe these articles as satirical and speculative in nature, rather than factual. Under Article 127 of the Latvian criminal code that was in effect at the time, Chaladze could have faced five years' imprisonment for making false allegations that a person had committed undefined "serious crimes." Article 127 was a remnant of Soviet-era laws. Under the new criminal code in effect since April 1, criminal slander has been reduced to misdemeanor status.
The journalist, who spent most of her life in Latvia and was an ardent supporter of Latvian independence in the late 1980s, was arrested on an order issued in February 1998 by Agris Rubenis, the trial judge in her criminal defamation case. Rubenis says he views the issues as purely procedural-Chaladze had violated the terms of her pretrial release (a signed agreement not to change residence) and had repeatedly ignored summonses to attend court sessions.
He maintains that the issue before him was not press freedom, but the defiance of the court by the accused. "People who do not obey summonses will get arrested in any country," he said. Rubenis also said he did not see anything wrong with keeping Chaladze jailed for more than two weeks after the prosecutor's statement, because the dismissal of the charges was not legally effective until presented to court, which had previously scheduled a hearing in Chaladze's case for April 15.
The Latvian media have been denied access to Chaladze; Latvian television was denied a request for an interview even after the charges had been dropped. But press reports based on interviews with Chaladze's mother, friends, and associates indicate that she may not have received court summonses. Not long after she was indicted, she left Latvia for Kalningrad to care for her ailing grandmother.
Her lawyer told the press that she considers herself guilty of contempt of court and won't press to be released. Other sources say she is using her time in jail to research possible stories.
The Latvian Journalists' Union and several newspapers, led by the Swedish-owned business daily Dienas bizness, have called for Chaladze's release, while the Russian-language press has been strangely silent about her case. Juris Paiders, editor of Dienas bizness and a former colleague of Chaladze's at the now-defunct Atmoda, Latvia's first independent newspaper founded in 1988, said, "It is strange that the Russian press is so reluctant to defend the first journalist jailed for her publications in a Russian-language paper. Probably, they see her as a kind of traitor for fervently taking the Latvian side and for saying some harsh things about Russian attitudes toward Baltic independence."
Most of the editorial staff of Dienas bizness signed an editorial and a request to the Latvian Supreme Court and the Prosecutor General to dismiss the charges against Chaladze and set her free. Paiders also expressed surprise that Chaladze had been arrested more than a year after the court declared her a fugitive. "She was here, visiting Latvia in March last year. Nobody arrested her, although she should have been at the top of the list among new fugitive notices issued to the border guards," Paiders said, recalling that the jailed journalist had come to his office.
Chaladze's arrest has created an unprecedented debate about press freedom and judicial proceedings in Latvia. When Latvian President Guntis Ulmanis wrote to the Minister of Justice Ingrida Labucka asking her to look into the case, apparently after receiving a letter from the Committee to Protect Journalists, the New York-based international press freedom advocacy organization, it was front-page news in the national daily Diena. The story of the arrest was first broken by a relatively new tabloid, Spogulis, owned by the same Latvian-Swedish publishing group as Diena.
A number of press commentaries waffled on the issue of press freedom versus judicial formalities, with only Dienas bizness calling the whole matter an outrage. Karlis Streips, a Latvian-American journalist who is the host of radio and television talk shows in Latvia, also reportedly took the side of those saying that people who defy courts would be arrested in any country.
Even Judge Rubenis, who has consistently taken an inflexible "the law is the law" stand on the case, has indicated he may be willing to write an opinion piece on the issues for Dienas bizness as soon as he considers it appropriate. He was also open to the idea of a public discussion with the Journalists' Union on press coverage of legal matters.
Despite the Chaladze case, the Latvian press today enjoys tremendous freedom compared to the Soviet era and to some of its neighbors, such as Belarus. When Latvian Prime Minister Vilis Kristopans abruptly walked out of his weekly press conference after a brief statement and said that, henceforth, journalists' questions would be taken and replied to in writing, the evening tabloid Vakara zinas (Evening News) ran a front-page photograph of male buttocks partly covered by a towel and a headline to the effect "Kristopans Shows His Bare Ass, But Won't Talk to Reporters." The picture was taken during a day when the prime minister made his entire schedule a photo opportunity, including a massage he received for a back condition while lying partially clad on a treatment table.