Lembergs fails to get judges switched in his epic trial

RIga Regional Court on January 13 rejected Ventspils Mayor Aivars Lembergs' demand that judges reviewing his criminal case be replaced, the LETA newswire reported.

Lembergs said on his website that he had appealed against "global pressure on judges and the rule of law."

As previously reported, the U.S. Department of the Treasury's Office of Foreign Asset Control (OFAC) on December 9 imposed sanctions on Lembergs and four legal entities associated with him, based on the so-called Magnitsky Act. The accompanying explanation described him, in the U.S.' view, as an oligarch with a long track record of buying and selling influence and power.

Lembergs argued that as a result of the U.S. intervention an impartial review of his case in Latvia is "not possible at all".

Lembergs' new lawyer, Genadijs Ivankins addressed the court, stating that the four months he had been given to familiarize himself with the case had not been enough.

On the other hand, the prosecution maintained that Lembergs' demand that the panel of judges be dismissed was not legally substantiated and could not even be considered because it had not been submitted correctly.

The court agreed and decided that Lembergs' appeal was unfounded and must be turned down, also rejecting Lembergs' arguments about media influence on the court.

"Such statements cannot create a perception of the bias of the court or cast doubt on the fairness of the court," the court explained.

The next court hearing will be on January 14.

LETA also reported that the Prosecutor's Office has demanded an eight-year prison sentence, with confiscation of property, and a fine in the amount of 150 minimum monthly wages, or EUR 64,500, for Lembergs who stands accused of a number of serious crimes including bribery and abuse of office.

The prosecutor's office also wants Lembergs' son Anrijs Lembergs to be sentenced to five-and-a-half years in prison with confiscation of property, and Lembergs' business partner Ansis Sormulis to seven years in prison, also with confiscation of property.

Riga Regional Court has been reviewing the case since August 2009 but even long before that there were lengthy pre-trial legal maneuvers that have given it the character of a never-ending epic. The trial has now lasted longer than the Trojan Wars. 

The U.S. sanctions have put fresh focus on the sluggish pace of justice in Latvia, which has also been a repeated subject of criticism from foreign investors.

Among the general public the Lembergs case will be highly significant. Assumptions that the rich can simply buy their way out of trouble or prolong legal proceedings indefinitely are common in society, making it imperative that the verdict is clearly based upon the evidence presented over the course of more than a decade and justified in its conclusions. 

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