Estonia’s most controversial lawman, former Harju County Court judge Leo Kunman, retired exactly one week ago. His 24-year career as a judge is unique, since he was once tried for crime, received three disciplinary reprimands yet stayed in office until the age of 68 - the moment the law no longer allows him to continue. Having experienced criminal investigation of himself and his sons, Kunman now harshly criticizes the prosecutor’s office and the Internal Security Service (ISS).
Leo Kunman, you worked as a judge for 24 years and retired on Monday. Did you make the right career choice back then?
I liked the job, especially the practical aspect. This was one of the few things that I liked.
What do you mean by practical?
Finding out through the judicial process whether someone is guilty or not.
How has that procedure changed in 24 years?
It has changed a lot. When I began, there were no plea bargain or abbreviated procedure. Now some 90 percent are abbreviated procedures, plea bargains and rapid procedures. General procedure is quite rare.
Did the judge’s job become boring after some time?
Of course it has become boring. The “clients” are always the same. Although there are some twenty judges, I have judged the same defendant four or five times.
What were the most interesting cases?
Maybe the most interesting case was the one that brought me disciplinary reprimand – I was fined a month’s salary. That was the case of Sergei Veselovski, who was charged with dealing of heroin. He admitted being an addict.
Strange things began to happen during the court session. He had been detained for more than a year and Prosecutor Rita Siniväli said that if he agrees to a plea bargain, he would receive the sentence he had already served. But the defendant refused.
He would have been released immediately, but he declined the bargain. This roused my interest: he has been detained for a year and does not want to get out.
I started to study the case and what came out – the evidence had been fabricated. There were two witnesses, both addicts. The investigation was carried out by a police investigator representing a detective, who only signed the documents.
As we interrogated the witnesses, it appeared that one had been threatened with imprisonment unless he testified against Veselovski. Since he had been under the influence of narcotics, he did testify.
The other had been detained, He was interrogated by the investigator who wrote the testimony in his laptop, but left, saying that he cannot print the text there. He later returned with the printed minutes of interrogation, placed it on the hatch of the cell door and said: “Sign it quickly, I am in a hurry.” The witness signed it.
But after the minutes was read in court, he claimed that he had not said it. I investigated and found out that the investigator had tricked him.
Then a storm broke. The prosecutor’s office noticed that I was too interested in the case and I was recused. I did not recuse myself. Then they turned to the then Harju County Court chairwoman Helve Särgava to have me reassigned.
Did they discuss it out of court?
Eerik Heldna (the then drugs enforcement unit head) and Lavly Perling (the then North district prosecutor’s office head of major crimes department) went, because they handled the drugs cases at that time. Särgava called me to her and I said that I would not recuse myself. She did not do it either.
Then they started to bring me new witnesses because the statements of the first two were useless. The first new witness ran away from the chambers, the other one did not show up and the third was an ISS agent.
Then they changed the charges according to what the third witness was supposed to say, But the prosecutor drafted the charge incorrectly because the witness said something else during the session. Then the charges were withdrawn and submitted again.
Finally I found for the defendant, since all that was a total nonsense. But then they started to make accusations against me.
(The district court overrode the sentence and found Sergei Veselovski guilty – Ed.).
You are saying that the present Prosecutor General and former deputy director of the ISS fabricated evidence?
They did not fabricate but they were aware of it. I had the impression of the session prosecutor that every time the session was postponed they came together and discussed how to save the case. Perling and Heldna had to know about these meetings since they appealed to Särgava to have me reassigned to another case.
Knowing Perling I am willing to believe everything about her. My own case was exactly the same – no evidence, but vengeance.
Perling wanted to take vengeance on you?
From the beginning. When I refused to cooperate they have been trying to use every opportunity to take revenge.
Who are “they”?
The prosecutor’s office and the ISS.
What kind of non-cooperation we are talking about?
When that investment fraud of Baku happened, Steven-Hristo Evestus (then prosecutor) stood up and said that he wants to recuse the judge. One of the reasons he cited was refusal to cooperate with the prosecutor’s office. This was the first time they openly hinted it. The plea of recusal was not submitted in his name but represented the prosecutor department of the Prosecutor General’s Office.
What kind of cooperation did they expect from you?
To pass sentences and rulings they would have liked.
How did it look like?
It happened with the case against Indrek Toome. They wanted me to keep him in detention.
But you did not.
Yes, I didn’t, together with the people’s judges. They wanted it very much and exerted pressure for some time. They even asked what was needed to keep him in detention. I said that the law stipulates two conditions: either risk of flight or likelihood of committing further crimes.
I went to work next morning and the prosecutor was in my office all unhappy and complaining about having received death threats – as if Toome had made it. It later emerged that an acquaintance had asked the prosecutor in bus whether he is not afraid to stay on his job, since anything could happen. A criminal case was initiated about it but it ended with acquittal, It had nothing to do with Toome. That was where my troubles started.
Complaints were made whenever possible. Then they targeted my younger son, then myself and there was a number of other things in between. A lot of things happened.
You said that they targeted your younger son and then yourself and your older son. Doesn’t it seem paranoid?
No paranoia at all.
What happened with my younger son is that he had a row with his partner and she accused him of wanting to rape and kill her and that he is dealing with drugs. The first two charges were dropped at once but as for the drugs, his phone was tapped for several months. Since nothing happened, the police recruited a close relative who had criminal record and he started to call on the boy every day to get drugs. He called until the boy got himself arrested. I am not justifying him.
The other incident was the criminal case of my insurance.
You said that since you were an inconvenient judge they were willing to bring criminal charges against you and your children.
They were very much interested in paying back for my refusal to cooperate.
Do other judges cooperate then?
I said that I am the only judge who has been recused for refusal to cooperate. I do not know what to deduct regarding the others.
You went to the courthouse in Liivalaia Street every day and worked with them.
Others have suffered as well. One judge made a misstatement during a trial and it was interpreted as acquitting the defendant. The judge recused himself and Märt Rask (then chairman of Supreme Court) started a disciplinary procedure.
You mean that Rask cooperated with the investigating institutions?
Yes, Rask did not protect the judges.
But what about Priit Pikamäe?
No, there are no problems with him. He is quite different.
Rask came from a political post and was appointed by the Reform Party. To be honest, in the end when I had these criminal charges, his attitude was different. He understood that it was all nonsense.
What you are saying sounds as if the investigating institutions do not operate according to law?
No, only in certain cases, In my case they were very much interested in punishing.
You said about a relatively simple drugs case that the evidence had been fabricated. How many such cases were there?
This was an exception, yes. There have been cases when not everything was the way it should have been.
For example when the ISS ran over a cyclist. The man that was brought to the court was not the one who had been driving. The expert who viewed the scene was the first to say that he had not been driving. It was also suspicious that I sentenced him to one year in prison but the sentence was not enforced.
Three years after that sentence he was walking around free and the police never looked for him. After that time expired the sentence could no longer be enforced. That was the only case in my experience.
But you still wanted to keep working in the system?
I must have been stubborn. These are exceptional cases, you have to get over them. You should not give up easily.
But I agree with Martin Helme and Igor Gräzin that there is no supervision over the prosecutor’s office and not everything is right with the court either.
When Rask became Supreme Court chairman, I attended the first general assemblies. He kept telling every time that the independence of the primary and secondary level courts must be ensured; that is, they should be removed from under the Ministry of Justice. He said the same thing for years and nothing happened. No it is really so bad that I would not want to be a judge any more.
What do you mean?
The prosecutor’s Office used to be in the adjoining building and they had to cross the courtyard. We had to discuss matters in offices due to the shortage of court halls. I hoped that the new building will have a hall for everyone and the judges will be in a separate zone so that such things could not happen. But when I worked in the new building for the last day, prosecutors freely walked in the judges’ zone. While they used to have to cross the courtyard, now they are side by side and access of free.
Please, explain the problem.
The problem is that the barristers should then have the same opportunity, since our court procedure is adversarial. The problem is that the prosecutors have an opportunity to influence the judges if they can walk in before and after.
And do they influence the judges?
They try to explain to the judges how it is. And the judges believe it. They slip in passing by or before the trials.
Isn’t it unlawful?
Of course it is. Such things should not be discussed at all out of court. All that should remain within the hall.
They must be able to sway the judges’ inner convictions then.
Of course they are.
You were the judge handling Kaur Kender’s case. When it was announced that you are the judge, I heard from several sources that this is good news for Kender. Why?
The same reason why they demanded recusal immediately after my own criminal case. Since I had been charged myself the ISS and the prosecutor’s office claimed that I was out for vengeance. In fact, in the Baku case where they wanted my recusal, I pronounced a tougher sentence than what the prosecutor had asked for.
You said earlier that with Perling everything is possible. What did you mean?
Perling is not an honest person. I my opinion she is the criminal since she charged me. This and all the rest what happened during the procedure was totally groundless. She wanted me to have a plea bargain – the prosecutor promised that we could make the bargain, the press would not be informed and I could leave quietly.
She offered this personally?
Yes, she did. I asked whether she was joking. I did not testify and walked away. Then they started pestering my son, told him to testify against myself for immunity. He refused as well.
They punished me by sequestering my car for two years, although an expert had inspected it and said that there no further use for it, But since I did not agree with the bargain, I did not get the car.
The procedural norms were badly violated in my case. My home was searched without any legal ground. In my case it would have required the president’s sanction.
I did appeal and submit a complain, but it was essentially handed over to Perling. The court managed to explain the search without the president’s sanction so that it all was correct. This is how they interpret laws although the law stipulates that in case of a second level crime there must be the president’s permission.
Have you been ever offered bribes?
They have hinted and have had it in the hand, but I always sent them packing. I told them to put the money away and told the court chairman.
How does bribe offering happen?
Once they had a pack of banknotes in hand. I had passed the sentence. After that he said that he wanted to thank me for the fair sentence. I told him to stop and added that unless he puts the money away, I shall call the police and it will result in criminal charges. Then he put it away.
They have brought me packages a couple of times, but I also told them to get lost and never come back. If they cannot get it, I shall go to the police.
There was no idea of accepting it?
I never had such an idea. I hate it.
Another thing why the police bear grudge against me – I sent all policemen taking bribe to prison. There was quite a lot of them in the beginning.
So you are willing to be tried yourself together with your next of kin for the sake of fair and impartial legal system?
I did announce once that I shall resign – when criminal charges were brought against me. Särgava said that it would have a negative impact on a judge’s reputation. I did write a letter of resignation but withdrew it later.
You said that Helme and Gräzin are right. Why?
Helme proposed that judges should be elected. I first thought that it is nonsense, since one cannot learn the business in five years, but, on the other hand, it may be right that the legal system should not have fellowships which stay at the same post for a long time. We should seriously think about how to improve the situation.
This means that a legal reform is needed?
Yes, something should be changed. They keep saying that the judges’ independence must be guaranteed and they should be removed from under the Ministry of Justice control. The Supreme Court is separate – I cannot understand why it is possible in case of the Supreme Court but the primary level and the district court must be subordinated to someone.
Are there political trials?
I have had no trial I could consider political.
Has EKRE approached you?
But you do understand that they will after this interview?
I do not know whether they will. I noticed that Mart Helme said during the party’s summer meeting that several judges have approached him, but he would not release their names. It appears that there are other judges besides be who feel that something is out of order, since I have not contacted him.
I really do not like the current situation. The new courthouse built together with the prosecutor’s office – this is no courthouse, this is a dormitory.
Are you embittered?
No, since I have experienced and seen a lot. But I am sorry for the colleagues who must continue working in this situation. This is so much slanted towards the prosecutor’s office now.
Does the ISS also have too much power?
They are together, aren’t they? There is this company at the top – thanks to Perling. When the tenure of Norman Aas as Prosecutor General expired, the then Minister of Justice Andres Anvelt announced that they will hold a tender and find an outsider. They even listed some names. But then there was a long silence and Anvelt mentioned Perling’s name. Time passed and she was appointed. She has so good relations with the ISS that there is a complete circle of friends. I saw it in my own case.
But it is inevitable that people may have good relations.
Now, yes, since they were as well as merged. It used to be that the prosecutor’s office supervised investigation but now they are investigating on their own. This is why they are a circle of friends.
Now when you can repent – have there been any case when you as the judge have been unfair?
No, I cannot say I have. No criminal or attorney has threatened me. My only problems have been with prosecutors. If I had sentenced someone unfairly or groundlessly, they would have blamed me for that. Maybe I have been tough sometimes.