Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga described it as a black day for her country: Three top officials, including the prime minister, were named in connection with a pedophilia case this week, and one of them, Justice Minister Valdis Birkavs, immediately began a hunger strike in protest.
But amid a flurry of scandalous accusations and counter-accusations, a member of a special parliamentary commission investigating pedophilia and child pornography said Friday that there is no direct evidence implicating the officials.
The chairman of the commission, Janis Adamsons, caused an uproar Thursday when he linked Birkavs, Prime Minister Andris Skele and Andrejs Sonciks, director of the State Revenue Service, to a pedophilia case during a report to Parliament. He claimed that army and police officers also were involved.
In a move that reflects the confusion surrounding the issue, the Latvian prosecutor general's office simultaneously opened a criminal investigation into the pedophilia accusations against the officials and a case against Adamsons on charges of slandering the three.
Ugis Salna, a spokesman for the prime minister, on Friday dismissed the claims as a political smear. "This dirty mudslinging was not exactly a surprise to us. We were kind of prepared for something nasty," Salna said. "But this attack--this charge--is not only nasty, it is absurd."
Helena Soldatyonoka, a member of the parliamentary commission, said Friday that the panel had not uncovered any concrete evidence.
"Frankly, we don't have any direct evidence or direct witnesses," she said in an interview with The Times. "It is true that during our investigation the names of [the prime minister and justice minister] came up. But we haven't uncovered anything concrete that would implicate these officials."
Skele, the owner of a prominent food-manufacturing company, came to power in July to lead the country's eighth government in as many years. He immediately declared that his main priorities were to see Latvia join the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
Many of the country's politicians have expressed dismay that Latvia's international image may be seriously tainted as a result of the scandal.
Declaring the case a malicious provocation, Skele said it has seriously damaged the country. But while Vike-Freiberga agreed that the allegations have blackened Latvia's international image, she warned Thursday against dismissing the accusations without a full investigation, saying it would be untenable to have clouds of suspicion hanging over the nation's leaders.
"It is not enough to say there is no evidence," she said. "If there is such, it must be carefully assessed."
Latvian police uncovered a child pornography and prostitution racket in August during a raid on an apparel company. They arrested five suspects, and prosecutors subsequently uncovered evidence that as many as 2,000 children may have been abused.
After media reports linking top Latvian officials to the case, the parliamentary commission was established in September to dig further.
"We talked to many people--mostly friends of victims, and witnesses who were too afraid or too shy to testify," commission member Soldatyonoka said. "We received many phone calls from parents who didn't want their children to testify. They don't want [to be part of] this investigation, for fear their children's names might become public. They are confused and ashamed, you see."
Gundars Berzins, head of the People's Party faction in Parliament, which is associated with the prime minister, said the accusations were an effort by Adamsons to damage his political opponents. He said the scandal has not affected the stability of Latvia's coalition government, expressing certainty that the three coalition parties would vote together if they where tested in a confidence vote.
Adamsons has been accused of working for the Soviet-era KGB and faces court action that could strip him of his parliamentary seat. Under Latvian law, anyone who worked for the KGB is banned from holding political office.
Sergei L. Loiko of The Times' Moscow Bureau contributed to this report.