Estonian appeals court overturns land swap case acquittal

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Rävala kinnistu kohtuprotsess.

PHOTO: Raigo Pajula

The Tallinn circuit court on Wednesday overturned the Harju regional court's acquittal of the defendants in the so-called land swap case and handed them mostly suspended jail sentences.

The second-tier court found former Environment Minister Villu Reiljan guilty of repeated accepting of bribes and gave him a suspended sentence of three years and six months with four years' probation.

The former head of the Land Board, Kalev Kangur, was also found guilty of repeated accepting of bribes and sentenced to four years and six months in jail. Kangur served two months and 19 days of the sentence in pre-trial detention, the rest was suspended with five years' probation.

Businessman Toomas Annus was found guilty of repeated giving of bribes and handed a suspended sentence of two years and six months with three years' probation.

Tarmo Pedjasaar, a former municipal official in Tartu, was found guilty of giving bribes and being accessory in the taking of bribes and sentenced to two years and six months in jail. He served one month and seven days in pre-trial detention, the rest of the sentence was suspended with three years' probation.

Businessman Einar Vettus was found guilty of repeated giving of bribes and sentenced to two years' imprisonment. He served one month and seven days in pre-trial detention and the rest was suspended with three years' probation.

Businessman Tullio Liblik was found guilty of repeated giving of bribes and given a suspended sentence of two years and six months with three years' probation.

The former minister of agriculture, MP Ester Tuiksoo, was found guilty of accepting bribes and handed a suspended sentence of eighteen months with three years' probation.

The two legal entities on trial, AS Jarvevana and AS E.L.L. Kinnisvara, were found guilty of giving bribes and fined respectively 798,000 euros and 127,823 euros.

The court ordered the defendants to pay a part of the procedure expenses and the state to compensate the defendants for the costs they incurred in the appeal procedure in the amount of 147,000 euros.

The second-tier court considered the case in response to the prosecution's appeal which among other things contested the stance of the first-tier court that evidence in the case had been collected in an unlawful manner. The Public Prosecutor's Office wanted the decision of the Harju regional court fully overturned. Specifically, the appeal argued that in gathering evidence neither the prosecutor's office nor the investigating body violated the law.

In the course of drafting the appeal prosecutors checked over all permits to conduct covert investigation and the surveillance activities conducted on their basis. The stance of the prosecutor's office is that all voice tappings had been conducted in accordance with court permits and therefore the evidence gathered through surveillance has to be taken into account.

The first-tier court said, among other things, that a permit to conduct covert investigation can be issued for a period of 60 days maximum. Prosecutors meanwhile say that in the law of criminal procedure the length of validity of a permit to conduct covert investigation is counted in months, and it is possible that there are more than 60 days in two consecutive months, for example 62 days in July and August combined.

Nor did prosecutors agree with the statement of the lower court that officials did not get any benefits for the decisions they made in their official capacity. The appeal names free use of apartments, covert holdings in companies, the right to use various properties, etc as such benefits.

The Public Prosecutor's Office continues to be of the opinion that the land swaps named in the statement of charges are illegal, the appeal laid out on more than 80 pages said. Stances contained in the statement of charges which the regional court did not address in its judgment made up a large part of the appeal.

The Harju regional court acquitted all the seven private persons and two companies in the land swap case on June 19 last year.

It acquitted Villu Reiljan, 59-year-old former minister of environment and ex-leader of the People's Union party, on charges of accepting bribes on at least two occasions, former Agriculture Minister Ester Tuiksoo, 47, on charges of accepting a bribe, businessman Toomas Annus, 51, of repeated giving of bribes, former head of the Land Board Kalev Kangur, 43, of repeated acceptance of bribes on a large scale, businessman Einar Vettus of giving bribes, businessman Tullio Liblik, 47, of repeated giving of bribes and Tarmo Pedjassaar, 44, of giving bribes and being accessory in the taking of bribes. The legal entities AS Jarvevana and AS E.L.L. Kinnisvara were acquitted on charges of giving bribes.

Reiljan, Tuiksoo and Kangur were accused of accepting bribes from businessmen and companies to help them exchange privately-owned nature conservancy land for state-owned urban lots. The charges alleged that the exchanges of land, in itself a lawful instrument designed to allow owners of restituted land to exchange their plots containing a natural heritage item or otherwise covered by nature conservancy restrictions for land free for commercial use, had been made a privilege of the accused, who turned it into a profitable business.

Judge Valeri Loonik said that the evidence in the criminal case was collected unlawfully and therefore the accused should be acquitted.

The court ordered the state to compensate the defendants for the costs they incurred in the trial in the amount of 1.3 million euros.

The statement of charges dealt with 13 exchanges of land worth around 16 million euros.

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