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Crossing Continents Wednesday, 13 November, 2002, 18:30 GMT
Latvia - looking west
Brasas prison
Brasas prison shackles Latvia to the past
Meriel Beattie

Latvia is proud of its image as a forward-looking country, poised to join the European Union and Nato. But its treatment of juveniles on remand is a baffling abuse of human rights.

Towering elegantly above central Riga is Latvia's Freedom Monument.

It's an imposing landmark, a site for political meetings, a shrine where new brides lay their bouquets - and it's protected by a uniformed guard of honour.

Latvia has one eye on a European horizon
It is not surprising that freedom is so fiercely prized in Latvia.

From 1939 onwards the Baltic state suffered mass deportations, incarceration, torture and execution by the Soviet Union, then Nazi Germany, then the Soviets again.

A short walk from the monument a windowless museum chronicles the misery of tens of thousands of Latvians in Nazi death camps or Soviet gulags.

Sensitive regime

You might think that in today's proudly independent Latvia, ready to join the EU and Nato, the idea of anyone being unfairly imprisoned in dehumanising conditions would be a sensitive one.

Strangely, it doesn't seem to be.

Across Latvia, hundreds of young people, some as young as 14, are locked up in overcrowded dirty cells for 23 hours a day.

Many languish there for years on end - even though they are yet to be proven guilty.

These teenagers are on remand, or "pre-trial" detention. They are lost in a tangle of official lethargy as they wait - and wait - for their cases to come to court.

Among all the countries approved for EU membership, Latvia has by far the highest percentage of juveniles on remand.

In its recent report on Latvia, the European Commission called it "a very serious concern".

Inhuman conditions

In Riga's Brasas prison, Igor is awaiting trial for stealing car radios.

Brasus prison
Some young offenders will not see the outside of Brasas prison for years
He's skinny, with a shaven head and yellowing skin. He shares a stuffy cell and an open, faeces-encrusted latrine with 11 other hollow-eyed boys.

"I am sitting here more than two years and I am still waiting for my trial," he says.

"I don't understand why it's not happening. I am terribly, terribly sorry for what I have done. Please don't forget us."

Although the prison has a pleasant exercise yard and gymnasium, the pre-trial prisoners cannot use them.

Their daily exercise is an hour pacing round a cramped, wire-topped cage.

Ironically, if these boys were convicted, they would have more rights.

But a separate and confusing set of rules for remand prisoners means they receive no schooling and can be denied visits and letters from their families.

Their situation is puzzling.

Impotent state

Everyone, from prison warders up to the President, Vaira Vike-Freiberga, acknowledges that current conditions are unacceptable, and the remand system must change.

Vitold Zahars - Director General of Latvia's prison system
Vitold Zahars' has the will for penal reform but not the means
But, the state still shies away from making basic improvements to prison living conditions.

Vitold Zahars, the director general of Latvia's prison system admits that Latvia's politicians and voters have their minds on other things - the economy, and their country's bright new future on the new map of Europe.

"For the moment this is not a priority," Zahars says.

"I think our law is very hard, especially for juveniles. "And if they stay for long periods on pre-trial, there is a very big risk they will be offenders in future."

Crossing Continents: Latvia - looking west
Thursday 14 November 2002 on BBC Radio 4 at 1100 GMT
The programme is repeated 18 November 2002 on BBC Radio 4 at 2030 GMT

Correspondent: Meriel Beattie
Producer: Ingrid Hassler
Editor: Maria Balinska
Online Producer: Andrew Jeffrey

Young prison inmates
"Please don't forget us - we need your help"
Vaira Vike-Freiberga, Latvian President
"Since you mention it - I suppose it's time for another visit to Brasas prison"
Vitold Zahars, Director General - Latvian prisons
"A Russian sub-culture is more common in institutions - not Latvian"
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