Casino robbery reveals sordid side of Latvian politics

The more sordid side of Latvian politics has been well shown in recent weeks with a bizarre robbery at a small provincial casino, stopped by police after a shoot-out in which one officer died, only to find out that among the apprehended robbers were—policemen!

Meanwhile, at another level, there has been growing unease about the over-exploitation of Latvian forests, an issue now gaining some unusual international attention.

Cops and robbers: Which is which?

The armed robbery took place Jan. 25 at the Fēnikss casino in Jēkabpils. During the hold-up, casino staff alerted authorities through a silent alarm. The local police arrived quickly to chase the robbers, ending up in a shoot-out after the robbers’ car was trapped in a cul-de-sac. In the shoot-out one Jēkabpils policeman was killed, and three of the robbers and two local policemen wounded. When the identities of the robbers were discovered, most of them were found to be former or current policemen, and two of them belong to the special police tactical response group Alfa, some of whose other members had also previously been involved in criminal activity.

This shocking incident reveals some of the long-suspected links between members of the police and organised crime. It also gives a very good introduction to the phenomenon of money laundering, and to the confusion over responsibilities for the supervision of police and related justice proceedings.

The incident had a number of extraordinary features. First, the stolen sum—reported by the casion owners as LVL 104,500, but later found by the police to be nearly LVL 400,000— is a huge sum for a small provincial gaming room, where daily takings would average around LVL 1,000.

Second, the robbery on a day when this large sum of money was at the casino (and had not been put in a nearby bank) attests to inside information at work. Who was in collusion with whom?

Third, and perhaps most unusual, the robbers seemed careless in their approach, as if they were surprised the local police would follow. They did not have a clearly learned escape route. And, curiously for such well-trained security people, they lost in a shoot-out with lightly armed local police, albeit killing one of their number.

The incident has created a political storm, and renewed attention to flaws in the legal system.

The large sum involved would indicate serious money laundering. A typical “story” to explain this huge sum in such a casino is that an (unknown) passing Russian millionaire appeared, gambled with the money and lost, and disappeared again. After paying the regular amount of tax (a stupendously low 15 percent in Latvia’s still unbalanced taxation system), the casino owners can keep the remainder as legitimate income. The illegal money to be laundered may come from the still thriving black market in cigarettes, alcohol and other contraband goods in Latvia, or from even further afield.

There is now serious concern over the continued viability of Alfa as an operational unit. This comes after other highly criticised actions of Alfa, notably last year a physical attack on peaceful and mostly elderly protesters in Bauska opposing the closing of the local hospital. The Jēkabpils incident on top of this and other sometimes criminal activity of Alfa operatives have now raised calls for the Interior Minister Linda Mūrniece to resign.

As a coda, the subsequent trial process has caused extra concern. National television showed the accused being convoyed to the place of trial, escorted by masked security personnel, with the accused also having a mask over their eyes, as well as being manacled in such a fashion that they needed to walk stooped, and be bodily hauled up stairs. Having their own clothes taken away for forensic examination, the accused were issued by prison personnel with ill-fitting garments several sizes too large, further inhibiting movement. These manacled and manhandled accused became an item of interest to the State Ombudsman, who wrote to the police asking if this treatment of the accused was not demeaning and against their human rights. Unfortunately, one other grotesque aspect of police operations in Latvia is the unnecessary use of force or intimidation in many aspects of their work.

This incident is likely to have far-reaching consequences for police operations and investigation of criminal activites. Yet in the past there has been little political will to tackle corruption in the police force and uncover money laundering, with poor supervision and loopholes in laws allowing such continued criminality.

Latvia’s pulp fiction and Al Jazeera

Latvia’s environmental problems and the uneasy relation between business and politics has been highlighted internationally by an unlikely source. On Feb. 2 well-known Middle East news channel Al Jazeera in its English language edition presented a documentary on the mismanagement of Latvian forestry and the rapacious growth of its uncontrolled forestry industry.

Over the last year, according to the documentary, Latvian timber exports have grown by a staggering 53 percent, with some 150 logging teams cutting some 15 million cubic meters of timber a year, twice the legal limit set by the government in its forest management policy. Large areas are being clear-felled, and the cutting is proceeding at twice the rate of any replanting, raising serious concerns about the viability of Latvia’s most precious natural resource.

Entitled “Latvia’s Pulp Fiction,” the documentary showed that the state-owned Latvian timber corporation Latvijas valsts meži (LVM) representatives and government officials claimed this growth of logging was a temporary measure, aimed at providing employment during the current economic crisis. Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis in the same documentary defended the government policy.

Another scandal revealed in the documentary concerned the false use by LVM of certificates issued by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), an international nongovernmental organisation that certifies timber is being sustainably produced. FSC stopped issuing certificates to LVM last year after an investigation found that the rate of logging was not sustainable. Despite this, buyers were still being told all timber was FSC approved.

After the screening of the documentary, the FSC released a statement saying that “it would now like to point out that the Latvian state-owned timber company or LVM have no FSC certificates issued to them that allow them to claim that their forests are either FSC certified in full or are covered by a controlled wood forest management certificate.”

Latvia’s forests are a precious national asset, and the operations of the loggers are now too blatant to not be recognised by any resident who takes an afternoon drive from any Latvian city. Again, the question of political will is paramount: illegal logging has been rife in many countries, but in Latvia it is being pursued by a state-owned corporation, obviously with powerful political support. This strikes at the root of the nation’s continuing sustainability.

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