Pre-trial detention is exceptionally common in Lithuania — despite of the fact that detention should be the strictest of all restrictive measures, the courts allow 95% of all applications for its use or extension. In this area, Lithuania is at the forefront of Europe and matches Kazakhstan: up to 2,000 people are detained and imprisoned prior to being sentenced in Lithuania each year, with pre-trial detention being used 10 times more than bail and almost 50 times more than house arrest.
The public is often unable to tell the difference between pre-trial detention and imprisonment. It is important to understand that detention is a restrictive measure meant to ensure that the pre-trial investigation and trial go smoothly — not a measure to punish the person.
The problem of excessive detention in Lithuania first attracted wider attention at the end of 2012 and the beginning of 2013, following the detention of two famous people —Andrius Romanovskis, a lobbyist, and Mindaugas Balčiūnas, who was the secretary general of the Lithuanian Basketball Federation at the time. Law enforcement officers and judges participating in studies conducted by the Human Rights Monitoring Institute have admitted that pre-trial detention is often applied for and ordered while knowing that is not strictly necessary in the circumstances.
Five new measures
Last week, the Seimas adopted comprehensive amendments to the criminal code relating to the use of pre-trial detention. Here are the most important measures introduced by the reform:
1. When considering a prosecutor's application for the use or extension of pre-trial detention, judges may now not only order or reject pre-trial detention, but also select a more suitable restrictive measure at their discretion.
2. When ordering pre-trial detention, judges are now under an explicit duty to indicate the factual circumstances and arguments that led them to believe that less strict restrictive measures were not appropriate in that case. Currently, this is usually limited to formal statements that less strict measures were inappropriate.
3. The longest permissible period for pre-trial detention in proceedings for minor or semi-serious crimes was reduced from 18 to 9 months, with maximum pre-trial detention for minors being reduced from 12 to 6 months.
4. Appeals from a court ruling ordering or refusing to order pre-trial detention will no longer be examined by a single judge of a higher court, but instead by a panel of three judges.
5. When applying for the use of pre-trial detention as a restrictive measure, the prosecution must in all cases allow the defense counsel to access the pre-trial investigation material that the application is based on. This requirement also applies when applying to the court for the use of other restrictive measures: intensive surveillance, house arrest and the imposition of a requirement to live separate from the victim.
Lawyers stress need for training
"The new-found attention to the problems of pre-trial detention has achieved results — in the last couple of years, there was a noticeable drop in the use of pre-trial detention. 2014 saw the least people detained in the last ten years. We hope that the amendments will contribute to the effective guarantee of the right to a fair trial in Lithuania," said HRMI lawyer Karolis Liutkevičius, commenting on the reform.
"We would urge not limiting this to just legal amendments. It is necessary to provide training for law enforcement officials, further explaining the purpose of and appropriate grounds for pre-trial detention or the other restrictive measures as well making them aware of the international human rights standards applicable in this area."
The amendments to the criminal code were proposed by the Ministry of Justice, with the Human Rights Monitoring Institute and Fair Trials International actively participating in the drafting process. The recommendations of these organizations were included in the final draft.