The case of the Derby Two, David Birkinshaw and Matthew Neale, and their trial in Riga, becomes ever more convoluted — and increases the anxiety and distress piled on the accused and their families.
The alleged offence took place in Sept 2008. In July 2009 the two men were surrendered to the Latvian justice system, under a European Arrest Warrant. After nearly three months in jail, in appalling conditions (and without a charge or a trial date) they were finally brought to trial and acquitted, coming home in October 2009. Then the Prosecution (jointly with the alleged victim) decided to appeal against the acquittal. David and Matthew were asked to come back for the appeal hearing on March 25th. I decided to go to Riga myself to attend the hearing and support my two constituents. Reporters from various print and broadcast media were to go too.
All bad enough for the accused, you might think. They’ve already spent a five-figure sum on travel to Latvia (themselves and families) and legal fees, never mind loss of earnings. But worse was to come.
As I prepared to leave Brussels for Riga on March 24th, I got a call from David Birkinshaw’s partner Rachel Gee, who was with the accused at Gatwick and about to board a flight to Latvia. They had just received a call from their lawyer Jelena Kvjatkovska, in Riga, to say that the “victim”, an auxiliary policeman, had declared himself sick, and unable to attend. The accused need not come (although their air-fares and hotel bookings were non-refundable). But there was to be a hearing of sorts (we were told) at which the accused would be represented by their lawyer, and at this stage I had meetings booked with the lawyer, the Chargé d’Affaires at the British Embassy, and the Latvian Ministry of Justice, so I decided to go anyway. The film team from Central TV also decided to go ahead to Riga to cover the story.
On arrival, we learned that there was to be no hearing at all — the judge had decided on his own authority to reschedule the appeal hearing for May 27th. Two more months of desperate uncertainty for the two men.
My meeting with the lawyer was very informative. She insists that an appeal against an acquittal is normal under Latvian law, and is not the same as a re-trial on the same offence. It does not represent Double Jeopardy. I pointed out that to the accused, and to the public at home, it looks very much like a re-trial. The evidence and the witnesses will be heard again. There is even the possibility of a second appeal and a third stage, though this can only be on procedural, not evidential, grounds.
Several other points emerged. The lawyer is optimistic and believes that the defence case is strong, yet of course she can offer no assurances on the outcome. The law is an uncertain business. She is satisfied in her own mind that the acquittal was correct. She has studied the extensive CCTV coverage, and is satisfied that one of the accused was not at the scene, and that the CCTV provides no evidence that the other assaulted anyone.
Of course assaulting a policeman is a serious charge. The “victim” produced a doctor’s certificate claiming concussion, but it seems that this was simply a record of the victim’s claim — rather like a British doctor issuing a sick-note to a patient who claims to have back-pain. The “victim” claims to have been repeatedly punched and kicked while on the ground. The CCTV does indeed show him falling to the ground, but he was on his feet again in two or three seconds. There was also, importantly, no evidence of any bruising.
One interesting angle. With the first verdict, the Judge called for the police to investigate the victim for suspected perjury. Initially this would have counted in favour of the accused, since it casts great doubt on the key prosecution evidence. However it made it virtually certain that the “victim” would appeal. He might stand to lose his job if investigated for perjury.
After the lawyer, I met Dr. Anthony Stokes, the Chargé d’Affaires at the British Embassy. They have been following the case closely, but of course there is no way that they can intervene directly in the legal processes of an independent nation. And after that I went on to meet Inga Skujina, Deputy State Secretary at the Ministry of Justice (a meeting facilitated by my European Conservative Group colleague Mr. Roberts Zile MEP). I stressed the issues of the unreasonable treatment of the accused; of public concern in the UK; and of the potential damage to Latvian tourism (with some justification, Latvians have a dim view of the behaviour of some British stag-party groups — but at the same time, tourism is important to the struggling Latvian economy). Mrs. Skujina recognised the problems, but said, perhaps predictably, that the Ministry of Justice was not able to interfere in the independence of the judiciary. Like the British Embassy, the Latvian Justice Ministry is also following this case closely, since it has acquired a high profile both in Latvia and at home.
I am frustrated that there isn’t more I can do for these two constituents, beyond wishing them all the best on May 27th, and fervently hoping that the matter can be cleared up without any further anxiety or delay. I was able to comment on the case, and on the threat posed to all British citizens by the European Arrest Warrant, on Central TV (their reporter Lucy Watts is pictured above), and to do telephone interviews from Riga with BBC Radio Derby and the Derby Evening Telegraph.