How 15 pupils fooled the prosecutor’s office

Martin Laine
, reporter
Krabi school.
Krabi school. Photo: Sille Annuk

What could compensate for harmed reputation and wasted time? “Nothing,” says Ale Sprenk, former director of Krabi school. “I just want to forget it.”

There is probably no other school in Estonia involved in so complicated a scandal of mistreating pupils as the Krabi private school in Varstu municipality, Võru county, which is teaching problem pupils. A total of four staff members came under suspicion. There were 15 witnesses and the violent incidents allegedly numbered several dozens.

How could it be possible that 15 people tell lies?

Imagine having to face the pupils every day with the knowledge that they may consider you a violent abuser of minors. Kaido kaas, an experienced teacher of handicraft, had to endure this for almost two years.

“The feeling that you are not guilty, but you face the state, which is doing everything that you were guilty…it is very unpleasant,” he admits.

Kaas, accused of two incidents of mistreatment, looked for a long time for a defense attorney he could afford for a teacher’s salary, but the lawyers had little faith in his innocence.

“Plead guilty. Make a deal,” the first lawyer recommended.

Sprenk’s case seemed even more hopeless. A total of eleven pupils accused the former director of having allegedly beaten boys or girls, pulled them by the ear or dragged down the staircase – a total of 18 cases.

One against eleven. Her first lawyer had no hope either.

But Sprenk and Kaas accidentally met the top lawyer Margus Kurm, who had served as leading state prosecutor, a lecturer of law at the University of Tartu and is currently serving as an attaché at the European Court of Auditors.

“I am not actually an attorney,” he says. “Before coming to Luxembourg I worked at the faculty of law at the University of Tartu and defended some people as a hobby. I have not defended anyone at my present post and have no intention of doing so in the future.”

Kurm heard about the case through acquaintances. When investigating further he understood that the teachers need help no other can or want to provide. Kurm read the dossier and was one of the few who could see that there were too many questions without answers. He offered his services pro bono.

For example, one of the youths claimed that Sprenk had pulled him by his hair and left him outside the schoolhouse, forcing the boy walk home in flip-flops on a snowed-in road, altogether 35 kilometers, which allegedly took four hours. Simple logic shows that the boy would have had to cover the distance at the speed of a fine marathon runner.

Kaas, the handicrafts teacher, allegedly had caught a 7th class boy’s fingers in a vice and had smashed a wooden slat against another boy’s head, all during the first lesson of a school year. He explained that the first lessons are introductory, without practical work – the youths would not have access to the tools.

The violent acts had left no recorded injuries. It was also suspicious that the sole witnesses of the abuse were the victims of other incidents, even though dozens of people had sometimes been present during them.

The trial began. The prosecutors’ case became weaker and weaker every day.

One of the pupils admitted during the trial that he had lied to make the director “get in trouble”. The others’ testimony became more and more contradictory every month. The pupils’ memory weakened.

According to Kurm, the whole case was started by a former employee, who instigated the pupils and their parents and, after the attempts failed, submitted a complaint to the police. The stories about the plea began to spread at the school and the pupils saw an opportunity to “have some fun”. They apparently had no idea how far it could go.

Former leading state prosecutor Kurm is highly critical about the conduct of the prosecutor’s office. He explains that the prosecutor must be completely convinced of the suspect’s guilt before taking the case to court. But Kurm does not believe that the prosecutor could have been absolutely certain that the teacher and the director were guilty. Yet the official did not dare to admit it and let the case go on.

“The court is not a place for making experiments on human subjects. It should not be a fishing expedition, hoping that the trial will clear things up,” he said.

In Sprenk’s case the prosecution did drop six charges, but recommended, based on the others, a ban on working as a teacher and a suspended prison sentence. The county court decided in January that the director was not guilty.

“I do not know what happened. I have no other option but to declare the defendant not guilty,” the judge Erkki Hirsnik then said, adding that the amount of lies told in the courtroom had been immense.

The prosecutor’s office remained sure of itself and attempted to appeal against the sentence, but the district court supported the ruling in April. Kaas had to wait for a longer time and run the same gauntlet, but the district court’s ruling on July 16 cleared his name as well.

In that case the second-level court did not even accept the prosecuting office’s appeal, describing it as clearly groundless.

“Personally I have not heard of any other case of the district court declaring that a prosecutor’s appeal is not worth any discussion,” Kurm says.

The legal aid cost Sprenk 19,800 euros (Kurm agreed to take the fee only in case of not guilty verdict) and it was paid by the state, i.e. the taxpayer.

Southern district prosecutor Terje Aleksashin remains taciturn about the case. She emphasizes that the state had been obliged to investigate the raised suspicions.

Kurm answers that the investigation had apparently been insufficient. In his opinion, the necessary witnesses had not been interrogated in several instances, which could have cleared a number of suspicions immediately.

The prosecutor also stresses that the court had not declared the testimony perjury. The court had only stated that the testimony had been reliable enough to prove a person’s guilt without hesitation.

It had been clear from the start that the case cannot have a positive outcome. Both possible options are bad and may still be true: either the youths conspired and told lies, which the prosecutor’s office believed; or there was extensive mistreatment at the school, which went unpunished.

Sprenk is unwilling to discuss the affair further, since children had been involved. “Maybe they will understand their actions better once they become older,” she says.