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Former Latvian prime minister Šķēle indicted in 'digital TV' case

Former Latvian Prime Minister and now one of Latvia's richest individuals, Andris Šķēle has been indicted in connection with a long-running fraud and corruption case, the LETA newswire reported March 22.

Šķēle served two terms as prime minister between 1995 and 2000, a period during which many privatizations were carried out and which coincided with his rapidly accumulating personal fortune.

The charges reported Monday relate to the so-called "digital TV case", a long-running affair still making its way through the courts since 2007 but centered on events twenty years ago and state-backed plans to introduce digital television services to Latvia. The precise nature of the charges have yet to be outlined, but according to LETA allege fraud and money-laundering.

Prosecutors in the case, which has multiple defendants, allege that contracts were rigged as part of a large-scale fraud, and while Šķēle's name has frequently been mentioned in connection with the case, until now he has not been directly indicted.

In a statement to the media, Šķēle said the charges against him are unfounded and pointed to the extraordinary length of the court proceedings.

"I have had no reason to think that I was suspected of violating the law in any specific manner, because in the 12 years until March of this year, I have never been called to testify in the said criminal proceedings," Šķēle said.

The LTV news department reported that former Minister of Transport Ainars Šlesers has also been charged in connection with possible irregularities connected to the introduction of digital TV. Šlesers was Minister of Transport and Communications from 2004 to 2009 and later deputy mayor of Rīga. He is also regularly included in lists of Latvia's richest people. Šlesers and Šķēle have longstanding business ties.

Last October, TV3's "Nekā personīga" program reported that the prosecutor's office had indicted Juris Gulbis, the former  chairman of the board of SIA "Tet", and four other persons for possible participation in fraud in connection with the introduction of digital television, estimating losses to the company at 7.5 million euros.

The surprise news about Šķēle and Šlesers, both of whom are frequently referred to as "oligarchs" in Latvian media, comes against the backdrop of the recent conviction of another influential alleged oligarch, Aivars Lembergs, after a separate corruption trial every bit as protracted as the  digital TV case. Lembergs was jailed for five years.

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