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A shaky month for the rule of law.

Respect for the rule of law has had a bumpy ride in Lithuania during the past month. The country's three leading political figures - the president, the chairman of the Seimas, and the prime minister - have failed to support unequivocally a court order, calling for the daughter of Drasius Kedys to be returned to the custody of her mother, Laima Stankunaite.

In October 2009 Kedys shot and killed Judge Jonas Furmanavicius and Stankunaite's sister, having earlier accused them and others of belonging to a pedophile ring that had molested and sexually abused his and Stankunaite'sfive-year old daughter. Kedys avoided arrest but died in April 2010, having apparently choked on his own vomit.

President Dalia Grybauskaite asserted that the court order is being implemented gently. I am not quite sure what 'gentle implementation' means, but the little girl has not been turned over to her mother despite the court order. Chairman of the Seimas Irena Degutiene tried to square the circle by urging Stankunaite to relinquish voluntarily her claims to her daughter. This non-starter has not even evinced a proper response.

Prime Minister Andrius Kubilius emphasized that the decision of the court should be respected, but suggested it might be worthwhile to place the little girl in a psychologically neutral environment. The suggestion merits attention, but the judge ordered the girl to be returned to her mother and not to be placed in neutral surroundings.

In many respects the Kedys case is special. The accusations of pedophilia, including the involvement of judges, the murders, Kedys's own death, and the fate of the little girl have triggered an unprecedented outpouring of emotions that has divided the body politic for almost three years.

But in a deeper sense the case highlights the crisis of trust that has enveloped the Lithuanian courts and legal system as a whole. From the Constitutional to the lowest local court the judiciary is the weakest link in Lithuania's governing system - ineffective, often corrupt, arrogant and self-satisfied. Its shortcomings have played a role in the Kedys affair. The law-enforcement authorities failed to respond properly to Kedys' accusations, the investigation of the alleged pedophile ring has not moved beyond the preliminary stage, the judge who ordered the girl to be handed over to her mother failed to give proper justification for his decision, no proper plans have been drawn up to implement the decision of the court, and so on.

Despite the evident problems with the judicial system, little has been done to mitigate them. Indicted individuals frequently change lawyers, fail to appear in court because of alleged health problems, and resort to various other measures to ensure that no decision is reached before the statute of limitations expires. For example, the trial of the Labor Party and its leader Viktor Uspaskich, accused of violating campaign finance regulations and of fraud has made no progress in four years and is unlikely to be resolved before the new Parliamentary elections in the fall.

The legal establishment has tried to parry the mounting criticism of the courts. The chairman of the Constitutional Court Romualdas Urbaitis castigated politicians who have criticized the work of the courts, claiming that their critical comments 'demean' the judicial system. But such efforts to silence critics will bear little fruit unless real progress is made in addressing and remedying the failings of the legal system.

Last week the Archbishop of Kaunas, Sigitas Tamkevicius, who spent ten years in prison and exile during Soviet rule for his role in publishing the underground Chronicle of the Catholic Church in Lithuania and defending the rights of fellow believers, expressed his dissatisfaction with the court order. More importantly, he noted that the people will not be satisfied with the work of the courts unless judges adequately explain and justify their decisions, and that their rulings not only satisfy formal legal criteria, but also not conflict with the requirements of natural law.

Platitudes about the importance of respecting the law will no longer allay the concerns of citizens or temper their criticism. Turning a blind eye to the failings of the legal system is no longer an option for the president, the Seimas, or the courts themselves. Talk of legal anarchy is exaggerated, but making believe that the problems will resolve themselves is wishful thinking.

That said, Lithuania's political leaders must be more forceful in insisting that the decisions of the courts must be implemented, even when there are genuine and sincere doubts concerning their wisdom. To hedge support with various qualifications will undermine further an already frail system.
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Title Annotation:Opinion
Author:Girnius, Kestutis
Publication:The Baltic Times (Riga, Latvia)
Geographic Code:4EXLT
Date:Apr 11, 2012
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