Hopefully the time will come when people convicted of corruption offenses no longer have access to public authority, says Prosecutor General Lavly Perling.
Words and actions often mismatch
Because I didn’t specify the topic of the interview, allow me to ask what bothers you the most in Estonia today?
(Takes a moment to think.) Today, here and now, I sometimes think about mismatching words and actions.
On different levels.
One of those levels is inhabited by political parties. The elections are over, and several corrupt politicians whom your subordinates have helped prosecute were reelected. How does it feel to see parties defend swindlers in their ranks time and again?
Naturally, it is not something I look favorably upon. People convicted of corruption back in power and money. For me, corruption is theft not just of taxpayer money, but also people’s trust in their state. That said, I believe things have improved. There is a lot more public condemnation when it comes to corruption.
Do you really believe that? Nine out of ten characters claim they are innocent after the ruling! Parties just go with it.
Yes. However, I’m first and foremost talking about social perception. It has become more critical of corruption. Does this mean we could be satisfied? No. More and more attention needs to be paid to making sure people’s words reflect in their actions. It is abnormal when local governments refuse to bring civil suits when we seek return of money stolen from them. I also saw news of some people having found new jobs (Allan Kiil and Alar Nääme – O. K.). While it is not up to me, as prosecutor general, to judge such professional relationships, it does make you wonder.
The corruption case of Tartu deputy mayors was made public just days after elections. We could say 600 voters were allowed to vote for them in good faith. Was it fair?
That is a difficult question. The honest answer is that the prosecution and investigative organs must do their work irrespective of elections and their timing. On the other hand, we must honor democratic processes. We all know that we would be hit with accusations of meddling were we to charge people on the eve of elections. A lose-lose situation.
Prosecutors have closed cases of corrupt officials due to lack of public interest to prosecute. Perhaps we shouldn’t offer corrupt people such opportunities?
It is difficult to argue with you. Generally, it is against our principles – agreement process due to lack of interest to prosecute is very rare in corruption cases. We have laws and the prosecutor general’s guidelines to regulate this. This means that even if you opt for the process, you must explain to the people why. Our monitoring department has also grown stronger, and we overrule these decisions in cases where we find agreement process clashes with our principles. There are examples.
Villu Reiljan, who has now been punished three times for corruption offenses, escaped going to prison in Edgar Savisaar’s trial only because he struck a deal with the prosecution. Do you believe his statements were worth it?
I must remain diplomatic and say that only the case prosecutor can tell you that. I suggest you put your question to [Steven Hristo] Evestus. It is my duty, as prosecutor general, to ask him that question. The state must maintain a spine in these matters – agreements cannot be opted for lightly.
(Evestus said on Thursday that Villu Reiljan has admitted his guilt and given substantial statements that coincide with charges on his third try – O. K.)
In the child pornography case of writer Kaur Kender, the first instance court found no crime, while the circuit court established you didn’t even have grounds to prosecute. It looks like the prosecution didn’t do its homework.
On the contrary. The circuit court said a very important thing: a fictional child can also be a victim pursuant to section 178 of the penal code. Secondly, the court finds that the state can limit freedom of speech and artistic expression when it is necessary to protect people. The court also explains why decency and morality are fully constitutional values. What is left: the matter of jurisdiction and cyberspace regulations. That is something the entire legal world is wrestling with today.
You will prosecute the next author to publish a child pornography story in Estonia?
Yes. We were given certainty in that detail descriptions of the shape and coloration of the genitalia of an eight-year-old ballet school girl during a rape that ends in murder is not acceptable. It could be a crime. Artistic value is beside the point here.
Experience of the Northern Prefecture suggests that the more detectives we put on sexual abuse of children, the worse the picture gets. Where is the solution?
I believe more attention needs to be paid to victims. Which is not to say we shouldn’t pay attention to the accused. However, what we are seeing is that a lot of accused have been victims themselves in their childhood. Therefore – if we do not offer support, help, treatment, counseling to victims today, they will grow up to be the accused of the next generation.
The “Pealtnägija” case, leaking of documents in Savisaar’s trial, the fact you lost to Kender – how do you perceive the prosecution’s reputation?
I have always held it to be important for the prosecution to talk to people. If the prosecution explains matters and background, potential victims will have more trust for the justice system. However, we cannot address our reputation at the expense of the core of our work.
Our priorities are security, the economy, and children, and I believe we have not let society down. We have convicted a lot of people of offenses against the state in the past two years. We are asked in Europe: how do you do it? We have not been afraid of losing and prosecuted very complicated cases.
How many of the prosecution’s so-called failures are actually those of the police?
The prosecution cannot blame the police because prosecutors have been in charge of investigations since 2004. This means that mistakes made by the police are our mistakes. In-house arguments of who dropped the ball are inevitable of course.
Your conversations with Elmar Vaher (director general of the Police and Border Guard Board – ed.) become heated sometimes?
Yes, of course. But I respect Elmar Vaher as a police chief. Heated arguments over our respective truths are a part of life.
Every new detail of the investigation into the murder of Danish journalist Kim Wall is brought to the public’s attention and given meaning. This is something that seldom happens in Estonia. It seems to me that the public is left wanting more in the way of explanation regarding some suspicions, which is a vacuum the press then tries to fill. Could you share more?
There is room for improvement. I very much hope the press has noticed how we share more than we used to. I believe the prosecution has tried to keep people in the loop in case of crimes that have shocked the public. Evidence and a fair trial are our red lines. Those are the things we have to take to court and cannot risk.
Have cases been ruined by excessive press interest?
We will never know. It is impossible to say in hindsight whether we missed the right time to do something, or whether the press got ahead of us.
An open manner cannot be allowed to turn into idle jabber. Victims might decide against seeking the state’s help if they are afraid incidents of domestic violence or rape might end up in the papers. That is where our opinions differ, and I believe they are supposed to.
It is also the reason we do not discuss cases of child abuse. It is our duty to protect the victims also when they grow up, so they could start their own lives.
How often do prosecutors burn out – have you seen tears?
An interesting question. I have two answers. One is that the state and public prosecution are strong enough to always pull through. However, I know rust can defeat the strongest iron. I do not deny we have discussed these matters.
There are two primary sources of risk: there is crime scene trauma, and there are certain attacks and stress. A prosecutor must be able to take criticism; however, there is a limit to it. That limit could be an attack against a person’s home, loved ones, or property.