Report From the Trial of the Human Rights Defender Aleksandr Gaponenko Detained in Latvia

After almost a five-year marathon, the first trial against Latvian human rights defender Aleksandr Gaponenko approached the final stage. He is accused of inciting ethnic strife towards many ethnic groups – Americans, their tanks, Latvians, Estonians, and Lithuanians.

Riga. Monday. Vidzemsky District Court. Looking at the exhausted face of the “two-time defendant” Aleksandr Gaponenko, a well-known Latvian human rights defender who clashed with the current nationalist-oriented authorities, I can only be struck by his endurance. Two trials in almost the same week is not a test for the weak.

A week ago, after almost a five-year marathon, the first trial against the disgraced doctor of economics came to the final stage. In this criminal case, he is accused of inciting ethnic strife towards a large number of ethnic groups – Americans (or their tanks), Latvians, Estonians, and Lithuanians. Part 2 of article 78 of the Criminal Law of the Republic of Latvia.

When such accusations are made against a recognised expert in the field of ethnic conflict and permanent participant in OSCE human rights conferences and sessions, it is certainly puzzling. In addition to being the author of the scientific book “Ethnic Conflicts in the Baltic States in the Post-Soviet Period,” Gaponenko presented several reports to the OSCE on the situation of national minorities in Latvia.

Characteristically, the case against Gaponenko was initiated not at the request of any of the representatives of the mentioned peoples, who considered themselves insulted on national grounds, but at the initiative of several now former deputies of the Saeima from the National Alliance. The defendant is charged with 7 of his publications from 2015-2016 on his Facebook account. Yes, Facebook, the one that many in the world still consider a territory of freedom…

In these posts Aleksandr Gaponenko strongly criticised the policy of the ruling authorities of Latvia, which in his opinion encouraged the glorification of Nazism in the country and violated the rights of Russian-speaking national minorities.

He repeatedly wrote with anger about the inadmissibility of the marches of Latvian Waffen SS legionaries in Riga, condemned thousands of torch marches on the streets of the capital on the day of Lāčplēsis, accompanied by provocative screams “Latvia is Latvian!”.

At the same time, the author made an analogy with the times of the Third Reich. But be honest – he was not the only one to do this, there were thousands of us, with some internal shudder, watching young people with enthusiastic faces marching with torches. Full deja vu…

But most of all, the complainant politicians were offended by the pacifist professor’s anti-war criticism of American military tanks, which more often started to arrive in Latvia – sort of like for training and for protection against external “aggressors”.

However, no one in the country saw the promised aggressors, but from the appearance of armed NATO troops in peaceful sleeping areas of our cities may have made many people uncomfortable. Wise from the experience of previous years, Gaponenko not without sarcasm suggested on Facebook that all of this is not for nothing, and “American tanks are in Latvia in order to shoot the local Russian population and ensure their movement to concentration camps….”

Yeah, well, the man reacted sharply, didn’t he? After all, British BBC filmmakers in their fantasy about the suppression of the “Russian revolt” in Latvia went much further. As a reminder, the “BBC 2” TV channel on the evening of February 4th 2016 showed a film called “World War III: Inside the War Room“, which played out the hypothetical situation of Russia’s attack on Latvia.

The professor, even in a nightmare, couldn’t imagine what the English entertainers played in their cinemas! And not on some Facebook, by the way, but on a Latvian state TV channel.

Someone at the sight of tanks in the city runs to the store for salt and cereal, someone else takes selfies in front of them, and another pouted. Gaponenko came to his computer – to reveal the truth to the world. But, on the other hand, no one declared martial law in Latvia to put people in panic? But we live in a free European country, can we express our opinion, our fears, alarming forecasts on this or that occasion?

Let us discuss, in a public debate, each other’s views, prove our right or expose the wrong. On social networks, in the media, on different public platforms. It would seem, yes? It turns out that’s not the case in Latvia.
There will be no controversy. There will be a court sentence for the incitement of ethnic strife. The verdict will be rendered by Riga Judge Dmitrenoka on December 11th. Prosecutor Lasmanis, as was already reported, requested 22 months of real imprisonment for 65-year-old Gaponenko, who is suffering from heart disease.

The lawyer Jansone reminded the respected court that criticism of the authorities, even if they strongly dislike it, is one of the achievements of democracy, which her client took advantage of. She also recalled the other “sacred cows” of democracy – the right to freedom of speech, assembly, opinion, which the European Court of Human Rights has always advocated. In addition, the expert engaged by the defence – a professional Russian philologist, in his linguistic opinion confirmed the complete absence of a language of enmity in the “accused” Facebook posts.

In Gaponenko’s epics, no offensive word was found by the expert against other ethnic groups. How did the prosecution see them? Perhaps it’s all about an inaccurate translation into Latvian? The lawyer drew the court’s attention to several such points. It would seem that it a trifle – some word was removed or a definition was not quite correctly given while translating the text from Russian to Latvian for the prosecutor’s office – and this thoroughly changed the essence of the aforementioned. In a month we will know – whether the lawyers won or the linguists…

Meanwhile, nobody was going to let the restless Gaponenko relax. Seven days later, on November 11th, he was invited to the second trial – to the same court in the Vidzemsky district of Riga. Here, under the chairmanship of Judge Studente, the first hearing in the second criminal case took place, in connection with which Gaponenko served four months in the Riga Central Prison during the investigation – from April to August 2018.

Now, jokes aside, this time it concerns eight years of imprisonment. For what? This is the maximum period for “activities against the Latvian state in a manner not stipulated by the Constitution” – Part 1 of Article 80 and “activities against Latvia in favour of a foreign state”.

And again, the whole investigative, prosecutorial, and judicial apparatus of Latvia for several years was provided by the deputy of the Seimas – this time the head of the faction “New Unity” Ainars Latkovski. He wrote a new statement last year to the Security Police (now the State Security Service of Latvia) against the restless defender of Russian schools, who, as everyone already knows, did not develop relations with American tanks.

The investigation started with another Facebook post of the defendant that dissatisfied vigilant politician, and further, as is said, they rushed – in a year and a half the volume of the new criminal case against Gaponenko increased to 600 pages.

The already familiar Article 78 – incitement of ethnic strife. So this time there will be three articles – was added to the two mentioned “anti-state” articles…

At the first hearing, Prosecutor Skalbe read out the abbreviated text of the indictment, which showed that the expert on inter-ethnic conflicts systematically disseminated on social networks and media “false claims about the revival of Nazism and fascism in Latvia”, and wrote about crimes and genocide against Russian-speaking residents of the country and the possible violent suppression of Russian residents with the help of NATO military forces.

Gaponenko is credited with writing an article featuring his own scenario of the suppression of the “Russian revolt”, allegedly published by him on a Russian Internet resource under the pseudonym – “Human rights defender warns about possible ethnic cleansing”. The defendant himself categorically denies this, claiming that he never published anything under pseudonyms.

In addition, according to the prosecution, Gaponenko allegedly acted against the independence and integrity of Latvia in a manner not stipulated by the Constitution of the country and acted in the interests of another state. He posted “hostile calls against statehood on Facebook, acting in Russia’s geopolitical interests”. Alas, how these appeals, even if they were made, could benefit the geopolitics of the neighbouring country, has not yet been disclosed…

The prosecution mentioned that Gaponenko, through Facebook, allegedly called on people to participate in acts of defiance and spread false claims about the revival of Nazism. And thus, as the prosecution assures, he provided information support to the Russian Federation…

What, other than Zuckerberg’s evil creation, is pinned on Latvia’s “main troublemaker”? The case includes his business e-mail correspondence with current Russian politicians and officials of the Russian Federation. According to the Prosecutor’s Office, these are also actions allegedly directed against the independence and statehood of Latvia.

In addition, the defendant repeatedly contacted various international organisations in order to transmit information about the situation in Latvia, allegedly transmitting “false information” about the situation in our country.

All of this multi-kilometer correspondence with OSCE leaders and staff, the United Nations, the ICC, and other international human rights institutions is also included in this criminal case. After all, there are still various scientific monographs and articles from several scientific collections that the Doctor of Economics took part in. Extensive extracts from the works of the scientist translated into the state language are also cross-linked to his criminal case. The judge will have something to study…

Thus, as follows from Mr. Skalbe completed a brief list of the accused’s “criminal acts”, Gaponenko assisted the Russian Federation with the aim – no less, no more – of “attacking Latvia’s State structure and security”. Part 1 of Article 80…

I’ll make a little digression. It’s just that I (author Alla Berezovskaya), seemingly, don’t understand something, and maybe I’m not alone in this… The Minister of Defence of Latvia has already publicly expressed several times this year his fervent desire to place in our country on a permanent basis a larger foreign military contingent, not limited to the NATO combat group in Ādaži.

Tell me, inviting a foreign army to Latvia, without any discussion at least in the Latvian parliament, is not an encroachment on statehood and the independence of the state? Especially since Latvia already has bitter historical experience… And aren’t these military games and plans more dangerous than polemic scientific articles and posts written by one unemployed Russian scientist?

Before the trial, Gaponenko appealed to the judge to lift the ban on leaving the country. He gave several justifications of his request – he needs to a serious examination in connection with heart disease. He has no funds for treatment in Latvia, and in a Russian clinic the examination and necessary procedures can be carried out free of charge.

Due to the demonisation of the image of the “enemy of the people”, the Doctor of Economics has lost the opportunity to earn funds for his existence by teaching at local universities, but he is invited to lecture abroad. Because of his own recognisance, he cannot do so.

The well-known human rights defender receives permanent invitations to international scientific conferences in Warsaw, Prague, Brussels, but he has not been able to take part for a year and a half – he is not allowed to travel.

“The ban on leaving Latvia thus extends to my scientific and human rights activities. But you are judging me not for my political views?” said Aleksandr Gaponenko to the judge.

For five years he has not seen his son, grandchildren, sisters, and nephews living in Russia, and has long dreamed of visiting them. As Gaponenko assured, lifting the travel ban will not entail his failure to appear at court proceedings. As an example, he cited his first criminal trial, in which a similar ban was lifted, and before his arrest in April 2018, the defendant was free to move, but always returned to Latvia. Because he does not consider himself a criminal and intends to prove his innocence in court.

The prosecutor opposed and proposed not to change Gaponenko’s measure of restraint until the end of the trial. In his opinion, the defendant may evade the trial, because he has relatives living in Russia, so he has the opportunity to stay there…

Judge Studente issued her verdict an hour after the trial – Gaponenko’s request to reject the ban on leaving Latvia is to remain in force until the end of the trial. This decision is not subject to appeal. The next hearing of the court in this case will continue in the new year – January 8th 2020. Let us hope that the disgraced human rights defender will be able to attend it out of handcuffs. But we’ll wait until December 11th.

Alla Berezovskaya

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