EU’s Top Court Weighs Extent of Immunity Protecting ECB Members

Bribery charges against a Latvian member of the European Central Bank’s governing council is forcing a court to review for the first time the limits of the immunity given to the bloc’s top officials.

Lawyers for former Latvian Central Bank Governor Ilmars Rimsevics told the European Union’s highest court on Tuesday that the immunity is almost limitless, like the protection typically afforded foreign diplomats.

Latvian police in 2018 detained and later charged Rimsevics with accepting bribes and a trip to Russia from a commercial bank that was later closed over money laundering violations. Rimsevics denies all allegations, blaming a coordinated attack from a group of banks for his legal troubles.

Rimsevics’s lawyer told the court that the immunity was designed not only to protect ECB officials, but insulate “the stability of the financial system” from national political struggles.

The 55-year-old “was detained in public without any reasoned justification to damage his reputation quickly and as much as possible so that the EU institution would turn away from him,” his lawyer Martins Kveps said.

Members of the European Parliament and other senior EU officials receive similar protections.

Rimsevics’s position was opposed by Latvian prosecutors, who said that the immunity shouldn’t apply to local crimes.

But he drew support from the ECB at the hearing. The central bank’s lawyer argued that national officials need to apply to the bank to lift the immunity.

The case is made more difficult by “the hybrid situation” of Rimsevics, who headed Latvia’s central bank as well as being a member of the ECB governing council, Vineta Cukste-Jurjeva, a lawyer for the Frankfurt-based bank, told the EU court Tuesday.

The EU court anonymized the court files, referring to Rimsevics only as AB. Kveps confirmed the hearing was about his client.

Rimsevics was detained the same month as the U.S. Treasury accused the nation’s third-biggest bank of money laundering, sparking its demise. Both the bank, called ABLV, and Rimsevics have legal challenges before the European Court of Justice.

Rimsevics’s Latvian criminal trial was suspended in December 2019 after his lawyers argued he likely had immunity for acts taken while a member of the ECB’s Governing Council. The judge sought the EU court’s guidance.

Latvian prosecutor Viorika Jirgena said it’s important to separate Rimsevics’s activities as a member of the ECB Governing Council and his activities in his role as head of the national central bank when determining his immunity.

Rimsevics “has been charged with activities that are not directly related” to his activities as governor of the Bank of Latvia and a member of the ECB Governing Council, she said.

Advocate General Juliane Kokott said she will give a non-binding opinion on April 15, which can give an indication of the final ruling that should follow about six months later.

Kokott said in a separate case concerning Rimsevics in 2018 that Latvia had violated EU rules by enforcing restrictions on Rimsevics “without providing the court with evidence of the acts which it alleges he committed.”

The case is: C-3/20, LR Generalprokuratura.

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