Latvian “commandos” abused non-white asylum seekers before welcoming Ukrainians, the human rights group said
Latvia has been using masked ‘commandos’ to abuse numerous asylum seekers, including through criminal acts like torture, international human rights watchdog Amnesty International has claimed.
The group released a damning report on Thursday, detailing Riga’s response to a refugee crisis on its border with Belarus that erupted last year. Latvia and two other EU member states, Poland and Lithuania, “continue to commit grave abuses under the pretext of being under a ‘hybrid attack’ from Belarus,” said Eve Geddie, director of Amnesty’s European Institutions Office.
Riga imposed a state of emergency in the border regions in August 2021, as dozens of would-be asylum seekers, originally from the Middle East, started arriving from Belarus last summer.
The authors of the document considered that the measure “was neither necessary nor proportionate as required under EU, regional and international law,” and allowed the Latvian authorities to effectively deny people their right to seek refuge. Investigators recorded a “catalog of human rights violations” that it found “long and shocking.”
Instead of receiving protection from the Latvian government, many individuals faced arbitrary detentions that sometimes amounted to forced disappearance, the group alleged. The victims were held incommunicado at secret locations and subjected to coercion, abuse and even torture, according to the report.
Most of the violence was committed by masked armed men, whom the rights monitor dubbed “commandos,” stressing that they had “served as agents of the Latvian state.” They supposedly used force to discipline unruly detainees, but Amnesty believes it was part of intimidation tactics meant to pressure refugees into returning to Belarus “voluntarily.”
In some cases, the enforcers practiced “gratuitous, cruel use of electroshock devices on various parts of their bodies, including genitals,” the document said.
Many of the refugees were kept for months in tent camps in Latvian forests. While the government described those places as “humanitarian” outposts, the living conditions there were abysmal, according to Amnesty. People only had holes in the ground for toilets and no showers, the group noted.
Latvian border guards also confiscated documents and mobile phones from the detainees, preventing them from learning their locations or keeping in touch with their families.
The watchdog noted the stark difference in the treatment of people at the Belarus border to the welcome received by thousands of refugees from Ukraine, who were provided with food and shelter in the Latvian capital and allowed to move on to other EU nations. Riga has shown a “fundamentally racist and discriminatory approach to non-white refugees and migrants” coming from Belarus, the report concluded.