After 12 years of heated court wrangling, a Latvian court has finally read its verdict in the high-profile trial of Aivars Lembergs, one of the country’s richest men, an influential populist politician and a former mayor of Venspils, the port city in northwestern Latvia.
On February 22, the Riga Regional Court sentenced Lembergs to five years in prison, confiscation of property and a fine of €20,000 after finding him guilty on a number of charges relating to bribery and money-laundering, while acquitting him on some other charges in the complex and long-running case.
Lembergs, who is leader of For Latvia and Ventspils party, has compared his sentencing to the case of Russia's opposition activist Aleksey Navalny.
As the judge was reading the verdict in his case, Lembergs asked for a short break, which was granted to him. During that break, Lembergs first had a brief conversation with his son and co-defendant Anrijs and then used the rest of the time to give comments to journalists.
Lembergs told the journalists that he will appeal the ruling of Riga Regional Court and predicted that the hearing of his appeal will take another decade. Lembergs is also determined to appeal his detention, even though this appeal will be heard by the same regional court.
The court decided to take Lembergs into custody immediately after reading the judgment, which included the reading of an astonishingly long list of properties and other assets, and holdings of offshore companies in numerous jurisdictions which the court said it would confiscate.
His co-defendants, son Anrijs Lembergs and business associate Ansis Sormulis, were also found guilty on a number of linked charges and were each handed two-year sentences.
On 14 March 2007 there was a media furore when, locked in handcuffs, Lembergs was taken to the Riga City Centre District Court, as prosecutors made their first moves to line up charges of bribery and money laundering on a huge scale against him as an individual (investigations into linked suspicions of corruption in Ventpils municipality had started in 2005). Now, nearly 14 years later, a verdict has been reached.
For well over a decade, the case has been making its way at a sometimes farcically slow pace through the Latvian legal system. In total, 770 court hearings have taken place in connection with the main criminal proceedings over 12 years. Since August 20, 2009, when the Riga Regional Court resumed adjudication of the case, until February 11, 2021, a total of 1,483 court hearings have been scheduled.
Despite being on trial on charges of bribery, and money laundering on a large scale, Lembergs has continued to act as a political kingpin, both in the city of Ventspils, where he was mayor for two decades, and as a key influence within the Greens and Farmers Alliance political force which he funds.
His election as mayor was suspended after he was charged with financial crimes but he continued to be the real power in the city, batting away one minister's efforts to stop him acting as Ventspils mayor with little problem. He even took part in government meetings with the International Monetary Fund, and helped choose candidates for the Latvian presidency while indicted.
As for Latvia's upcoming municipal elections, Lembergs said that the decision on participation in these elections will be taken by his regional party For Latvia and Ventspils, but that his possible participation in the elections is currently not his main priority.