Justice minister: Death penalty debate would be inappropriate

Minister of Justice Raivo Aeg.

PHOTO: Eero Vabamägi

One hundred years ago, the Constituent Assembly passed Estonia’s first Constitution that entered into force during the last month of the same year. To mark the occasion, Postimees interviewed Minister of Justice Raivo Aeg on Monday to talk about various legal matters associated with recent events.

Estonia’s interior and finance ministers said on their Sunday radio show that Estonia should restore the death penalty. What is your opinion?

Personally, I disagree. Estonia is a country with a civilized society and civilized societies want to put the death penalty behind them. It would be stooping to the [Lihula] killer’s level and taste of vendetta.

More attention is being paid to prevention and aversion programs. Life in prison is the toughest punishment in Estonia today that I find severe enough. I would not discuss it and remain opposed to even having a debate over whether the restore the death penalty in Estonia.

Should such a debate nevertheless surface, what would be the reaction of our European Union allies?

I think they would not understand the need. Change has already happened and turning back the clock would be an incomprehensible move and message for our European friends.

Minister of Foreign Affairs Urmas Reinsalu has said the Lihula shooter should be handed the toughest possible punishment. Is it appropriate for ministers to demand maximum punishments for people not yet convicted in a democratic country?

The maximum punishment we have is life in prison. Emotional reactions are one thing, while formal legal processes are another, according to which the presumption of innocence remains intact until a person is convicted in court. That said, the circumstances are widely known. An incident took place where people were shot and killed, the perpetrator has been arrested and has admitted to the crime.

I admit this looks like an open and shut case. At the same time, we must uphold the rule of law. We need pretrial proceedings to be concluded before the case can culminate in a ruling and the person found guilty or innocent.

Is owning a gun a right or privilege in Estonia?

Owning a firearm is definitely not a fundamental or human right, while people are allowed to own weapons, whether to protect themselves and their property or for certain hobby activities. To exercise this right to certain hobbies so to speak, one can apply for a weapons permit for which one needs to meet certain criteria. The main thing is for the person not to be a danger to themselves or others. A firearm is clearly a source of elevated danger and needs to be handled with care. One does not need to be paranoid, while a measure of caution and compliance with regulations is needed.

Where to draw the line?

I believe in the principle of sensibility. For example, people are not allowed – with some exceptions – to own automatic and military issue firearms. The main thing is for the person to meet the required criteria – to be physically and mentally healthy and responsible. A person also cannot have a criminal past. There are other conditions. Provided all of these conditions are met, a person owning a gun poses no threat. I do not believe it would be sensible to strip people of that right or narrow the law. The Weapons Act can be interpreted in different ways today. We might adjust some details, but I believe the general principles are in place.

Does the Constitution treat with the right to bear arms?

To the best of my knowledge, the Constitution makes no mention of weapons. It is a contextual aspect of people exercising their rights. We have certain restrictions when it comes to owning firearms, with the Constitution prescribing that these freedoms can be restricted on the level of legislation – that is why we have the Weapons Act.

How to prevent weapons ending up in the hands of people who do not have a permit?

That is largely a matter of law-abidingness. If a person cannot be entrusted with a weapon for some reason, there is no surefire way to stop them from committing a crime using an illegal one. Any society will always have offenders.

Minister of the Interior Mart Helme finds that mental health checks have become a formality when applying for a weapons permit. Is the doctor who issued the Lihula shooter’s bill of health being investigated?

I’m not up to speed on investigation details and we should allow the prosecution and investigative organs to do their work. Based on what I’ve gathered, there are both objective and subjective circumstances for mental health checks being less thorough than we would like.

On the one hand, doctor’s appointments are limited. However, we cannot just say time’s up when we need to determine whether a person is responsible enough to be trusted with a weapon. Another appointment needs to be made if one is not enough.

Psychiatrists have also said they cannot access people’s medical records. A person can determine which doctors can access their medical records in Estonia.

However, if a person refuses the doctor access to these records, the latter can simply refuse to give them a health certificate on the grounds of not being able to access relevant data.

It still remains unclear what exactly giving the tasks of the Political Parties Financing Surveillance Committee (ERJK) to the National Audit Office aims to achieve?

Looking at the ERJK and the audit office, there can be no doubt that expert capacity of the two organizations differs greatly. The second thing is that the ERJK is largely made up of politicians or their puppets. I do not believe that people exercising control over themselves can be very effective. Let supervision be handled by authorities that have proper training and preparation, while they will have to be given the necessary rights for this supervision to be effective.

Meaning you do not believe in self-regulation? Have we examples of the latter having failed?

It is indeed a strong argument that everything the ERJK has sent to court has been upheld there. That said, we do not know how many cases the committee has decided not to send to court because proceedings did not get that far. We can find both pros and cons for the ERJK.

The National Audit Office is still emphasizing the danger of it becoming a political tool. You perceive no such risk?

I do not, because we have other investigative institutions attached to the executive branch that also investigate politicians and political parties. Such as the internal security service, the police and the prosecutor’s office. We cannot see these institutions taking political orders so to speak or being intimidated in some way. I have no criticism for them in terms of bias or politicization.

What would giving the ERJK’s tasks to the audit office mean from the constitutional point of view?

This needs serious analysis. As we know, the Constitution provides a rather exhaustive list of the National Audit Office’s functions. True, the institution was given the additional function of monitoring use of state budget resources by local governments. The debate had to pass constitutional review in the Supreme Court that decided to allow it should the audit office feel up to it.

The matter has been analyzed by former justice chancellor Indrek Teder who concluded that the audit office overseeing party financing would be the best solution. Former justice minister Urmas Reinsalu convened a corresponding roundtable meeting back in 2018 where the same conclusion was drawn that the audit office is perfectly capable of this task.

The problem people see is that while parties receive most of their resources from the state budget, there are private donations and membership fees. Handing control over state budget funding to the audit office is not really contested. However, it is said that money from the private sector cannot be guarded by the audit office. I believe that separating those tasks would make the system even more cumbersome and ineffective. I am not in favor of having several institutions in charge of supervision.

We need to discuss whether what the Constitution has to say on the audit office’s tasks is truly a dogma we should not stray from or whether there is room for interpretation there.

Could the matter end up in the Supreme Court?

Yes, I believe it will go as far as the Supreme Court Constitutional Review Chamber.