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Lithuania: World Attitudes Differ On Felons In Office

By Anthony Georgieff/Don Hill

Andrius Butkevicius is a convicted felon released from prison early on good behavior -- and an active member of the Lithuanian parliament. Having a legislator with a criminal past is a source of continued controversy for voters and politicians in Lithuania. RFE/RL correspondent Don Hill looks at whether a man with Butkevicius's background would be allowed to sit in parliament in other countries.

Prague, 23 May 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Three years ago, a Vilnius court convicted Andrius Butkevicius of demanding a large bribe from a constituent while Butkevicius was a member of the Lithuanian parliament. Butkevicius, released early from prison due to good conduct, is still a member of parliament. As a legislator, the former inmate is currently considering such financially sensitive issues as privatization of electric utilities.

The Butkevichius case remains an electric topic in Lithuania.

When Butkevicius's constituent, a businessman, complained to authorities that the legislator had demanded a bribe, prosecutors set up a sting operation. They captured the deputy on tape demanding a bribe worth more than $15,000. Butkevicius's parliamentary colleagues stripped him of his immunity and he was prosecuted.

But when the ruling Conservative Party tried to expel him from parliament, its leadership was unable to assemble a majority. And when Butkevicius tried to continue his legislative activities from prison, the legislature couldn't agree to outlaw even that. Butkevicius proposed to receive official papers and to entertain constituents in his prison cell. Prison authorities, however, said no.

What would Butkevicius's status have been had he been a citizen of a Western country? Would he have been allowed to resume his parliamentary duties?

In Denmark, he might have spent longer behind bars, but probably would have noticed little other difference.

A legal expert at the Interior Ministry in Copenhagen says Denmark is among the severest of European countries in the imprisonment of felons. The expert, Niels Erik Hansen, told our correspondent that Danish courts frequently resort to long jail sentences.

"First of all, compared to other European countries, imprisonment is used very often in Denmark, more often than in, by way of example, Sweden and Germany, that we usually compare with. The penalties are very long. The number of years is longer than in those countries that we usually compare with."

Thus, the Danes tend not to see a need for additional penalties after prison. Hansen said that prison inmates, including convicted felons, retain their civil rights, including voting rights. He said they may be banned for a period of time from holding some administrative positions.

If Butkevicius had been a German, there probably would have been no further punishment once his prison term expired. German penal authorities have adopted rehabilitation of criminals as their priority goal. By legal principle, once felons have served their terms, they are reinstated to full rights.

In practice, this is less generous than it seems. Most employers and professional licensing agencies ask in their application forms whether applicants have criminal records. (RFE/RL Munich correspondent Roland Eggleston reports that the Bavarian Journalists Union asked this question when he applied for membership.)

Greek felons -- those who are convicted of major crimes -- may lose the right to vote, work in civil service jobs, and stand for public office. Those convicted of treason, torture, and crimes against human dignity automatically lose those rights. Perpetrators of other heinous crimes, like drug trafficking, providing a court with false evidence, calumny and bribing state officials -- and who are sentenced to more than one year in prison -- may lose these rights for one to five years. Citizens who are sentenced to life in prison lose the rights to vote and stand for office for as long as they are in prison.

Other European nations differ in their treatment of felons. The Council of Europe says there appears to be no European-wide policy, although people who consider themselves incorrectly treated can bring their cases before the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

In the United States, a person convicted of a serious crime permanently forfeits a number of citizenship rights -- specifically the right to vote and the right to bear arms. But the United States is governed by a melange of federal and state laws. So other penalties a felon might suffer differ depending on the jurisdiction involved.

A federal court convicted long-time Washington, D.C., Mayor Marion Barry of narcotics offenses, and he lost his right to vote. But, under Washington, D.C., law, he remained eligible to run for city office. He did, and became mayor again -- presumably without the benefit of his own vote.

(Alexi Papasotiriou in Athens and Roland Eggleston in Munich contributed to this report.)