Chief of the central criminal police Krista Aas tells Postimees in an interview how her operatives prevented a murder last year, how the police are involved in protecting the suspect in Nikolai Tarankov's murder, how organized crime is reorganizing itself after recent turbulent events, and how detectives discovered one of the past year's most dramatic economic crimes in Poland.
What was the central criminal police's greatest achievement in 2016?
Our greatest feat this year was the conviction of Assar Paulus. In the end, our work is evaluated by the court. We cannot talk about final victories in the course of investigation and prosecution. The court has the final say.
Looking at the materials in Paulus' case, chances of an acquittal were minute. Or did the criminal police see it as a realistic outcome?
No, no. By the time we send something to the prosecution, we believe there is enough evidence for a conviction. However, evidence is there for the court to interpret.
The Paulus verdict – agreement process – is a prime example of how decisions are made in organized crime. The leader of the gang was interested in a plea deal, and while a number of his subordinates weren't, they followed orders in the end. As a former prosecutor, were you satisfied with agreement process as a solution in this case?
I believe it was the only realistic outcome in this case. It is not a matter of questionable evidence or uncertainty in terms of a conviction. Rather it has to do with the logic of administration of justice in Estonia.
The court going over everything done in preliminary investigation again is hugely time-consuming. If, in that kind of a situation, there are a lot of people on trial simultaneously, at one point you get the question of sensible length of proceedings, and all sides start thinking about faster solutions.
The central criminal police has its hands full with the underworld recently. In addition to Paulus, you have the ongoing trial of Haron Dikajev's gang, prosecution of Andrei Kuzjakin's criminal organization, and last but definitely not least the murder of the uncrowned king of the underworld Nikolai Tarankov. How far have you come in the latter investigation?
We have assembled the materials in Tarankov's case and sent them to the prosecution. They are drawing up charges; however, we've done our part. We gave it away before the new year.
... still only one suspect.
Hindsight always provides the opportunity for didacticism. A look at where Tarankov was killed spoke of everything but a professional hit. Considering the suspect's direct link and recent conflict with the victim, why did it take the police a whole week to reach that person?
Apprehending the suspect a week after the crime is a brilliant achievement in this case. I'm very happy with the work of my investigators.
Even if we had known the identity of the killer at the time of the murder, it would not have been enough. Arrest of a suspect requires concrete evidence collecting of which takes time. A week is very quick work.
The suspected killer has been in custody for three months, and there is a peculiar concern regarding him. How to ensure his safety in a situation where punishing him is a matter of honor in the underworld. Not only here and now, but also years later.
I agree with your description. The world of organized crime has its own rules; however, we will do everything in our power to make sure that person can stand trial and, if convicted, serve his time safely. Naturally joint effort with the prison is needed.
Tarankov's death luckily did not unleash an organized crime war; however, the reins now seem to be in the hands of Tarankov's former right hand man and punisher Slava Kemerovski a.k.a. Vjatšeslav Gulevitš. Considering Gulevitš' violent past, what is the central criminal police's forecast for the criminal underworld – will there be a rough redrawing of lines of force or rather not?
It is very difficult to forecast anything here. Organized crime in Estonia is used to operating in a system, following concrete rules. Because this system has disappeared, there is now a measure of confusion. It is a management crisis, if we can call it that. Forecasts are tricky in that kind of a situation.
What are the likely developments?
There will either emerge a person with enough authority to be heeded, or groups will have to look to their own devices and how to solve conflicts. The third option is that it will all collapse, and everyone will be on their own. We don't know.
Tarankov's murder is one thing; the situation is more complicated than that. In a situation where three groups and their leaders are being prosecuted, their members find themselves in a leadership crisis and bewilderment. They are no longer viable.
That is why it is possible organized crime in its traditional form will disappear altogether. It is possible. However, no one knows which of these scenarios will manifest.
Organized crime lived off prostitution and extortion in the 1990s. In the previous decade it was illegal motor fuel and other forms of excise duty fraud. By now, investigative organs have shut off most of these cash flows. There is much less cash in that world today; that is to say the life of a thug has become far less glamorous. Everyone is after their pittance, and this makes it easier to keep tabs on them.
It is this way and that. Yes, organized crime is no longer living a glamorous lifestyle. That might have been the case in the 1990s, but no more. Thousands and tens of thousands are no longer spent in one night. That is why criminals are constantly on the lookout for new sources of income, which has made them flexible and smart.
That world is inching towards white collar crime and income. Tax fraud is still very much alive; rather it has become far more complicated and international. Next to it we have other kinds of fraud, from cheating people and companies out of property – agricultural machinery, leasing vehicles – to theft of credit card information. That is where criminals try to cash in these days.
Benefit fraud is not the domain of old school criminals, rather we see systematic fraudulence on all levels here. One of the more telling examples of corruption from last year is the case of politician Kajar Lember. It seems the police will never run out of work in this field.
Yes, most of our time is spent on white collar crime now. It is a far bigger problem in terms of the Estonian society and economy than organized crime.
Benefit fraud is still a problem, and our work is only starting here. If in 2014 proceedings concerned around one million euros, damages from 2016 amounted to eight million, while current cases give a sum total of ten million euros.
This shows we are being thorough in our work, that we have come to these figures. It is probable damages for fraud have been in that ballpark for some time.
You have to be successful here, seeing as you have dozens of people working on that problem in the economic crimes bureau.
Yes, 43 people to be exact. Of course they handle more than benefit fraud. We are currently processing 19 such cases, and we've sent 11 to the prosecution.
In the biggest case we had, criminals had already swindled four million euros in benefits, while we managed to stop them getting another two million. It was a major scheme where companies used support to expand their activities as opposed to legitimate purposes.
Do you really believe this form of crime will disappear after a few years of efforts by the police?
Definitely not. It is beyond the police to put an end to these kinds of crimes for good. What matters is something else.
Our work includes a lot of things that cannot be seen. I'm not talking about surveillance and other things like that. What I mean is prevention. Next to proceedings, we collect and map systematic problems and communicate with implementing agencies and ministries to move towards better rules and control mechanisms. It is our goal to change the application process in a way to render crimes like these impossible.
In all white collar crime – whether corruption, benefits fraud, or other crimes against companies – prevention is far more effective than combating consequences.
How goes Kajar Lember's investigation?
Proceedings are ongoing as the case has grown bigger than we anticipated. The plan is to send it to the prosecution in the first quarter of this year.
To linger on the subject of white collar crime, the seemingly most ingenious criminal scheme of last year was the creation of a phantom court of arbitration in Poland that was used to pocket more than five million euros in Estonia. If we had to give out the criminal idea of the year award, this would be a strong contender.
We solved it in cooperation with Poland.
How did you uncover such a complicated scheme?
There are only three ways you can uncover things like this: hint, chance, or analysis.
And in the Polish case?
It was a combination of things. The persons on our radar have grown in time. This means that they've interested us in the past. At one point their activities stand out; if you are interested in what they're doing, you notice these things. There was no chance at play here.
What makes this case complicated is international cooperation, the fact that information is scattered in different countries. Someone somewhere must be wise enough to see all ends. It is important to see the big picture.
So we turned to the Poles in this case?
We met in the middle.
The central criminal police's cyber capacity has clearly been weak so far. What is the situation today?
Things are looking up for this year. Society has developed faster than the criminal police's ability to keep pace. However, we have made headway in recent years and caught up to our deficiencies. Including investigation of cyber crime. We have no other options as crime is largely moving into the virtual world.
Through what do you now have that capacity?
We got a cyber crimes unit at the beginning of this year where we can hire specialists who can concentrate on pure cyber crime. There are 14 positions and we currently have 11 employees there.
What is their background?
We have both cyber specialists and policemen. Four people have a police background.
What can you offer your IT specialists in addition to exciting work?
While this might sound like a cliche, sense of duty is involved. Another advantage is that it is really cool to work at the criminal police. There has hardly been a week or a fortnight in the past six months where people have not applied for a job with us.
When can we see results of the work done by the cyber unit?
Initial results will manifest this year. I'm strongly of the opinion that it does not pay to start with the big things that leave you winded. We need to pursue simpler cases to gain experience at first. That is why I dare say the first chicks will hatch in 2017.
Right now we are working with our colleagues in Latvia and Lithuania on a series of bomb threats made against shopping malls in Estonia and Latvia in past weeks. While the investigation is still in the early stages, apprehending the culprits is just a matter of time.
The central criminal police is one of the most secretive agencies in Estonia. What is the greatest achievement of undercover work from last year?
We have a plethora of stories we can never tell. And it is not our goal to talk about things. A lot of the work will remain hidden.
Our goal is also to prevent crimes. Last year we managed to prevent a murder. That is the only thing I can freely say about it.
Our attention is drawn by people whose lifestyle includes committing crimes. If we see that what they're doing is nearing a critical point, we must prevent it. That is what we did.
Shouldn't the person who planned the murder be prosecuted?
These are matters of discretion. We cannot take the risk of letting things play out as far as murders just because we need to collect evidence.
The priority is to prevent things and remain in control of the situation. Every criminal will be brought to justice eventually.
So basically your men approached the potential murdered on the street and told them not to go through with it because they were being watched?
Were things that simple we'd just give you a list of targets, you would print it on the front page, and they would stop committing crimes. It does not work like that in the real world. However, I cannot tell you what it is we did.
Does the potential victim know their life was at risk?
Not always; however, they did in this case.
The central criminal police took great interest in the late Nikolai Tarankov; however, it did not prove possible to prevent his murder, even though I imagine surveillance activities were considerable.
We were not investigating Tarankov specifically.
Things connected to his close circle were investigated.
I can see your attempt at provocation. I cannot say even in hindsight whether we would have managed to prevent that murder or whether we should have anticipated it. Some things cannot be anticipated.