Treason suspect Peterson, other defendants plead not guilty

Aivo Peterson (front), Andrei Andronov and Dmitri Rootsi  in Harju County Court on Monday.
Aivo Peterson (front), Andrei Andronov and Dmitri Rootsi in Harju County Court on Monday. Photo: Eero Vabamägi

In the trial that began in Harju County Court in Tallinn on Monday, neither treason suspect Aivo Peterson nor his alleged associates admitted their guilt.

Presenting the indictment, State Prosecutor Triinu Olev said that alongside his activities related to the Koos (Together) movement, Peterson engaged in the formation of a so-called civil protection unit, for which he was looking for holders of firearms permits distrustful of the Estonian state.

According to the state prosecutor, Peterson's aim was to establish a unit similar to the ones that used to operate in Ukraine's Donbass, ostensibly created for humanitarian purposes, but in actuality acting in the interests of Russia.

The indictment is divided into three parts. The first part concerns a Russian citizen, Andrei Andronov, who helped organize Peterson's trip to Russian-occupied territories of Ukraine. Andronov is also accused of organizing Peterson's appearances on Russian television, where Peterson would present views favorable to Russia.

The second part of the indictment concerns the actions of Dmitri Rootsi. The Estonian citizen who joined Koos in July 2022 is accused of having established, while in Russia in September of that year, a relationship with Ruslan Krylov and Vladimir Mikhailov, who worked for the authorities and special services of Russia. According to the indictment, Peterson and Rootsi agreed to carry out influence activities against Estonia together with Krylov and Mikhailov.

Rootsi's role was to be an intermediary in the interaction between Peterson and the individuals in Russia. Among other things, the prosecutor is about to present evidence to the court that Rootsi asked Krylov for funding for the Koos movement with a view to securing a good result for Koos in the March 2023 parliamentary elections.

None of the defendants pleaded guilty. Mati Senkel, defense attorney for Peterson, Urmas Simon, attorney for Andronov, and Vladimir Sadekov, attorney for Rootsi, described the indictment as general and vague and not showing the guilt of their clients.

Estonia's Internal Security Service (ISS) detained Peterson on March 10, 2023 and he was taken into custody by the court on March 12. Peterson had stood as a candidate for the United Left Party in the largely Russian speaking county of East-Viru in the general election of March 5 the same year, receiving 3,968 votes and boasting one of the largest vote totals in the region. The number was not sufficient to secure him a seat in parliament, but secured state funding for the United Left Party for the next four years.

The ISS detained Peterson a few days after the election. According to the ISS then chief Arnold Sinisalu, the allegation that the ISS waited until the election was over so that Peterson would not become a martyr among his supporters is not true.

"Behind it were other procedural aspects, why Peterson was detained at that particular time. He was not detained alone, but several people at the same time. There were a few other reasons, I would drop the subject of the elections from here now," Sinisalu said.

In early September last year, the Office of the Prosecutor General charged Peterson and Dmitri Rootsi with treason and Russian citizen Andrei Andronov with non-violent activities against Estonia.

According to the charges, from October 2022 to March 10, 2023, Peterson and Rootsi deliberately and systematically assisted Russia and individuals acting on behalf of Russian authorities in non-violent activities against the independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity of Estonia, following instructions received from Russia.

The indictment alleges that the accused were actively involved in influence operations aimed at establishing a political organization in Estonia that supports Russia's foreign and security policy narratives and propaganda messages. This organization was intended to provide Russia with the opportunity to jeopardize Estonia's constitutional order, interfere in its domestic politics, and influence foreign policy.

Peterson is also accused of assisting Andronov, a citizen of Russia, in non-violent activities directed against the independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity of Estonia.