Several crucial court cases have recently unfolded in Lithuania. From the trial of a neo-Nazi to a mother murdering her child – the proceedings need to be examined in closer detail, writes law professor Justinas Žilinskas.
The first story is about the very first court ruling on terrorism in Lithuania since the restoration of independence. It is not about gang wars, extortion, personal threats, but about “true” terrorism aimed at bombing and intimidating those who think differently.
The story is rather typical. A young man gets radicalised on the internet, makes a bomb, and places it outside the offices of an international corporation. Luckily, he isn’t too dexterous and so the bomb doesn’t go off, while he gets arrested by the police.
It turns out, the Lithuanian terrorist was radicalised by a 12-year-old Estonian.
The whole affair is tragic and comic in equal measure. It turns out, the Lithuanian terrorist was radicalised by a 12-year-old Estonian. He came to identify with far-right or racist-fascist ideology at the same time as Lithuania’s far-right and even right politicians were talking about the threats of left-wing and Islamic terrorism in the country.
It may sound paradoxical, but that is why terrorist acts are often labeled “black swans”. They happen unexpectedly, forcing us to look closer and see that it was coming all along. Lithuania is part of the Western world, so troubling things that happen elsewhere can also happen here.
The court sentenced the Lithuanian terrorist to two years and four months in prison. Is this punishment severe or mild?
Terrorism is one of the most serious crimes because it targets not only a specific life, but also an entire value system. Victims of terrorist attacks are made into symbols and tools to spread a message. It is a communication-based crime. The more wide-reaching the message, the more successful the crime. If nobody talks about the perpetrator, it means he is a bad terrorist. Luckily, our terrorist was like that.
It was the poor performance that probably led to the mild punishment. The court based its decision on many factors, including the young age of the defendant, his clean criminal record, his admission of guilt and regret. The terrorist said that he placed the bomb at night to avoid casualties and the judge decided that he “did not seek to harm people”, although that sounds hard to believe.
Can the Lithuanian terrorist become a champion of immigration and international corporations in just two years?
The purpose of putting the young man behind bars for a couple of years is to bring him back into society. Or is it retribution for his actions? The point of punishment is, after all, manifold: retribution, prevention of similar crimes, and re-education of the criminal.
But changing the imprisoned person requires a combination of tools: education, employment programmes characteristic of the Scandinavian system. The Lithuanian penitentiary system has never been conductive to prisoner re-education and rehabilitation – the country’s criminologists have been warning about it for years, but to little effect.
Can the Lithuanian terrorist become a champion of immigration and international corporations in just two years? Can he accept that all people are equal in their experience of pain and happiness irrespective of their skin colour?
Quite unlikely, since our imprisonment system has not had to deal with ideological challenges before. The only hope is that the criminal will change himself.
The second case I want to talk about surprised and enthused me at the same time. The story is very difficult as it involves a victim. This is the case of a mother killing her baby. What could be more horrible, it would seem?
The first-instance court was harsh and satisfied prosecutors’ request to sentence the baby killer to eight years in prison. The court of appeals, however, overturned the woman’s prison term.
It noted that she was a single mother raising three children. The kids were well taken care of and were not considered an at-risk family. The woman was mentally stressed and when she sought help about an unplanned pregnancy, she didn’t get any.
The woman was mentally stressed and when she sought help about an unplanned pregnancy, she didn’t get any.
The first instance court had also said that the state would have to take care of the three children while their mother was serving the sentence. So I was impressed by the appeal court’s humanistic solution. The judges took many circumstances into account and reached a decision that was uncommon in the Lithuanian jurisprudence.
The woman will not go to prison, despite having committed a serious crime, but will have her freedom limited for two years. She will have to stay at home from 10:00 to 18:00 and take part in a behaviour correction programme and therapy. The woman will also have to work or register with the Employment Service. During the first six months of her sentence, she must contribute 200 hours of unpaid work in health and social care services.
The mixture of requirements seems a bit bizarre. Since the court ruled that the woman was a proper carer of her children, only under mental distress, the behaviour correction programme sounds excessive. Same goes the requirement to work, when she has three kids at home to take care of.
But this is what the law requires. The judges applied it flexibly to minimise the damage on the person’s life and provide her with another chance even under such circumstances. Is it not the purpose of the corrective system – to give a second chance and bring the culprit back to life?
The third story is grimmer than the second one. Recently, a teacher has become infamous in Lithuania after organising various nationalistic demonstrations and championing personalities from Lithuania’s twentieth-century history tainted by the Holocaust.
In one of the actions, the police arrested the teacher for organising the rally illegally. The woman refused to give her ID and the officers took her to the police station. The episode prompted an online war between the supporters and the opponents of the teacher.
After the story reached the court, it turned out that it was the police that acted illegally.
The officers decided to arrest the teacher, even though they knew they had no basis for it, as their recorded conversation revealed. In other words, they used the most despicable Soviet police practice: “If there’s a person, we’ll find an article against them.”
People still call such officers “menty” [derogatory Russian term to describe police] and their actions have nothing to do with the “defend, protect, help” principles of the Lithuanian police and do harm to the reputation of honest and hard-working policemen and policewomen.
[Lithuania's law enforcement] used the most despicable Soviet police practice: “If there’s a person, we’ll find an article against them.”
While reading the court report, I was surprised not only because the police actions were illegal, but also because they were dumb. The officers’ conversations were being recorded, so they could not have expected to be covered by their colleagues. They were not. I could only be grateful for judges that cared about justice irrespective of the defendant’s political leanings.
These stories about finding justice are happening in the country that is getting more and more involved in the election fever. When picking a party to vote for, one should consider their approach to justice, crime, and punishment – and whether one agrees with it.
Justinas Žilinskas is a professor at the School of Law, Mykolas Romeris University.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of LRT.