Tallinn prosecutors rebel

Põhja ringkonnaprokuratuur.

PHOTO: Teet Malsroos / Õhtuleht

«I will not, by my signature, agree to an untruthful regulation to annul a preventive measure as if «basis had fallen off» or for some other artificial or essentially false reason. I am not intending to answer victims’ questions by lying that there was no basis for arrest; when asked, I intend to answer honestly: ministry of justice has failed to guarantee amount of places and prosecutor’s office, as an institution, is political and depends on the ministry.»

So straightforwardly wrote, in an e-mail to superiors dating October 3rd, a well-known prosecutor at Northern District Prosecutor’s Office. On that very day, the full text of letter reached the inside list of the prosecutor’s office. 

The snowball to follow was incredible. In the list, dozens of prosecutors spoke up publicly, criticising orders by system of justice and the stiff «points system» used at the prosecutor’s office for performance pay.

Postimees and the TV programme Pealtnägija (Eyewitness) have, in their possession, the content of the frank correspondence. The letters being meant for insiders, we will refrain from publishing names of writers. Even so, we do print a selection of the content. For the first time ever, the public will get a glimpse of the actual atmosphere in the prosecutor’s office.

The storm in the tea cup, so to say, was actually triggered by prisoners, criminal offenders. Numerous of those won victories over Estonian state at European Court of Human Rights, complaining that they have too little area to dwell on, in prisons of Estonia.

In prisons of Estonia, every imprisoned person averages about 2.5 square metres of space; EU standards being bigger by half a square metre. As the prisoners were sentenced to be compensated by thousands of euros, the ministry of justice decided the situation was to change by 2014.

For that to happen, the number of those imprisoned had to be cut by a hundred-some persons (by the way: this has, by now, been achieved). To achieve that, the most effective method was cutting the amount of persons in prison for preliminary investigation – using the arm of the prosecutor’s office.

Thus, district prosecutor’s offices were, at the beginning of October, issued limits – how many were to be set at liberty, and by whom. Preferably, the prosecutors were told to start by freeing minor thieves and the less important drug offenders.

The «rebellion» at Northern District Prosecutor’s Office broke out after detailed information arrived, in the departments, on how many persons they were expected to let loose. For instance: drug and serious crime department: six; minors’ department: two; general crimes departments: six people. In total: 18 imprisoned persons.

However, the prosecutors were issued no guidelines as to how to substantiate the release of the allegedly criminal contingent. Therefore, a fury of rage arose amongst prosecutors, towards justice ministry and Public Prosecutor’s Office.

Has the independent Prosecutor’s office indeed become a department at Ministry of Justice, which, refraining from criticism, proceeds to obey political orders given? Why will they not build, in place of the planned super ministry building, a prison in Tallinn – being, for years, aware of the problems with those detained? Why is the general assembly of prosecutor’s office stuck with the Soviet-time reputation? Wouldn’t it be better to re-establish an independent association of prosecutors, independent from Attorney-General?

These being just some of the abundant questions let loose after years of being held back.

COMMENT

Norman Aas,Attorney-General of Estonia

In itself, it is good if prosecutors discuss important issues between themselves and to reason what they could do to better protect their rights. To re-establish the professional union of prosecutors surely is a prudent idea. Even so, I’m sorry for the prosecutors at the Northern District Prosecutor’s Office whose e-mails, intended to be read by colleagues, have thus been cast before the public, without their consent.

A letter on identity crisis of prosecutor’s office

Author: a well-known district prosecutor dealing with serious crimes against persons 

I do understand, of course, that the issue here is justice ministry’s inability to make situation at prisons correspond to EU requirements and ideals; even so, this is a task imposed not on the prosecutor’s office but on justice ministry, the latter trying to solve the situation by putting pressure on prosecutors and, of course, without causing extra costs.

[---]

The situation could, of course, be solved in a manner quite adequate which would be making the preconditions for arrests even stricter and, then, the new situation would gladly be adhered to by all law-abiding prosecutors. Even though, thinking of the Riigikogu conveyor-belt, this should not be a problem too great, for some reason they are not desirous to go that way.

Maybe the reason is that interior and justice ministries do not agree, concerning this? Thus, the directive would not really be coming from the government but the ministry governed by Reform [Party]? The thing being hard to explain to the public, especially on threshold of elections?

To my knowledge, even Attorney-General hasn’t issued a corresponding directive providing prosecutors with some more specific guidelines as to whom to arrest and whom not. 

Instead, they have opted for the «middle of the road» – prosecutors have been imposed an administrative order, leading to possible problems (a crook with «no more basis» will, after being set free, commit something horrible again) which would of course remain on the shoulders of the prosecutor in question, plus the pain in one’s soul of course.

Is that the reason so it would not be possible to blame political and administrative management, the rank and file thus becoming scapegoats? In old times, this was put very plainly – the right of the phone.

[---]

Another issue, long weighing on my heart, is, alas, also related to the said prisoners’ problem. We have created an idol out of statistics, a false god and a thing in its own right. At that, I do in no way imply that statistics are unnecessary or unimportant; but with us (and not at prosecutor’s office alone) it seems to have turned into the chief image-creating tool i.e. it is important to produce nice figures.

[---]

At yearly meetings, it is being emphasised who has sent more persons into the courts etc. [---] When competition is created within a team (for example, paying for performance), then the team will disappear. Instead, we will have a group of people competing with each other. Again, a matter of choices. In the light of the summer events in recent years – does prosecutor’s office look like a close-knit family? [---] To me personally, it seems, additional payments would only be justified (if at all), in prosecutor’s office, for an exceptionally good essential result (cases very clearly above average in complexity an volume, irrespective of clause and department; a new legal standpoint accepted by Supreme Court or any other such thing, clearly special).  

Not for someone succeeding in defining an above-average amount of people as criminals. To say nothing of the danger that, for instance, a person being paid on equal basis might decide to «polish up» his results in the name of additional pay. Again, I’m talking about a definite case, but I would rather not name names. There are plenty in our house who have come in touch with the said case and they will understand.

[---]

It seems to me that, in prosecutor’s office, there exists a gap between the leadership and the rank-and-file; the goals and directives of management are not always clearly understandable at lower levels; here, I would underline the absence of involvement.  It is demagogical to think that prosecutors could easily voice their opinions in different issues; well, this is not being done, because of the fear of losing one’s position, job, become a laughingstock and other such primitive fears.

[---]

The activity of prosecutors’ general assembly are quite predictable: confirming the procedure of the general assembly; reports/lectures by justice minister, Attorney-General, and guests; various elections of persons prior approved by leading and senior prosecutors (as election of Jaan Naaber (public prosecutor – edit); announcing of elections results; and ending the general assembly. To the proposals, as a rule, there are no objections neither can be, as all has already been co-ordinated. What is missing, as a rule, is discussions and debates.

[---]

Regrettably, our people are not keen to voice opinions, except in the coffee corner. Or maybe the Attorney-General who, pursuant to law, leads the general assembly, has not desired to raise such issues, I don’t know.

[---]

I’m of the opinion that in a team there ought always to be people who dare to argue with people above them on the food ladder, not always agreeing; in my opinion, this is a very effective way to avoid mistakes and stagnation. This letter is, also, not meant as criticism against anyone personally, firstly this is criticism towards conformism. Towards myself also, as I have not formerly spoken up. Even those in the leadership are not larger than life; even so, both they and the team spirit might benefit from honest feedback. It is lonely at the top, especially with the sound of silence, only, from below.

Reply to above letter

Author: department head at district prosecutor’s office, a well known senior prosecutor

All you write about is pure gold. [---]

Among other things, I’m worried by some people not daring to publicly voice their – just like in North-Korea. Prosecutor’s office, as an institution, has hit a moral crisis … a long while ago. PS. Your piece is no worse that opinion articles by Andrei Hvostov and deserves a place in Postimees.

Opinion regarding the system, by a young prosecutor

Author: assistant prosecutor, employed for a year

[---] Having been employed for a couple of months, I realised I had gotten things quite wrong. At the prosecutors’ office, there goes on an unbelievable adherence of instructions, orders, and what not. No arguments, at that. I thought I was the only one to think that and would just have to adjust to the way things are; and, for a long while, I was waiting for somebody finally to say something; thinking that if I were already a «somebody» (meaning experiences and seniority in office, firstly), I would long ago spoken up.

Meaning: how can we even talk about independence and convictions if, all the time, some new guidelines come from somewhere which we all, cap in hand, follow. And, in reality, we’re nothing but a political pawn. 

[---]

It is strange that people concerning whom it is thought that they have been hired as «having what it takes to be prosecutors» need guidelines in order to ensure legality of procedures. Why does the Attorney-General appoint people who need guidelines to treat cases lawfully.

[---]

We should not allow ourselves to be trampled underfoot and promise to obey all orders issued to us by the administrative authority. By unending ovations, we might declare our attitude when the honourable minister of justice soon appears to hold a speech at our anniversary. No, I’m not implying throwing tomatoes. Even so, let every man decide whether a person, administering the prosecutor’s office yet absolutely not valuing it, deserves a handclap or not.

[---]

I don’t think that this (points system – edit) would be totally imprudent. I find assessing people on the basis of that is wrong.

[---]

Must people necessarily be counted, then, definitely in the future all terminations without necessary elements and resolving of complaints should be included. It is imprudent if a prosecutor who spends an entire month doing nothing else than resolving complaints (as the honourable Delta requires punctuality with dates, as otherwise you may find yourself in a list you’d rather not be in and then you will be remembered) with no one ending up in courts, as if he never worked.

As revealed by the above correspondence, something somewhere has gone terribly wrong. People seem fed up?

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