Andres Parmas: Punishment is always society's revenge

Toomas Sildam's interview with Andres Parmas.
Toomas Sildam's interview with Andres Parmas. Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR

Even though any punishment is always society's revenge to some extent, its effect cannot be limited to paying for pain with pain as that would constitute failure to address the reasons that have led people astray, Prosecutor General Andres Parmas (42) says.

Why did Minister of Justice Raivo Aeg pick you as Estonia's next prosecutor general?

That is what I asked him, why he chose a person from outside the prosecution and why me.

And what did the minister tell you?

That they're trying to bring in people from the outside to gain the onlooker's perspective, find new approach that seems to be in short supply.

I was told that I have academic experience [as a jurist], long-time experience as a judge evaluating the work of prosecutors and also international experience [as a Kosovo Specialist Chambers judge].

A judge is impartial. They have to weigh the arguments made by the prosecution and the defense and make a decision. To what extent to do you enjoy this impartiality afforded to you?

There's no point denying that I do enjoy it. I have been passionate working as a judge and would continue to be passionate about it under different circumstances. I hope to return to it one day.

The prosecutor general cannot afford the luxury of impartiality. Do you need to move some things around in your head for the transition?

I do not think so. The justice system is a whole and works toward the same goal. Of course, the tasks of prosecutors, defense attorneys and judges differ, their approach to the heart of the matter. But every professional with experience from the field can switch between these roles.

The public wants the prosecution to tackle money laundering, while the prosecutor in charge of that recently went on parental leave – what will become of it?

A different prosecutor will take over. While a criminal matter should ideally be handled by the same prosecutor from start to finish, prosecutors act in the name of the state. Every prosecutor represents the prosecution and can be replaced.

Money laundering originates from Moldova, Azerbaijan, Russia – can we count on the validity of data from those countries in our investigations?

Not all aspects of it.

Information from other countries must always be analyzed critically, like all information for that matter.

A colleague suggested I ask whether stealing from those countries is even a crime?

(Smiles) That perhaps hurting your opponents is beneficial?

Let us take the example of soccer. The rules are in place for both teams. And if someone from the stands throws a bottle at the opposing team's player, everyone should be bothered as it could just as easily happen to you.

Do we have too much surveillance in Estonia?

Because surveillance is a secret activity that takes place out of sight, it certainly provides enough food for conspiracy theories and suspicions. It is natural.

But I don't think we can say there is too much surveillance. You cannot keep tabs on anyone without a permit from the prosecution or court when talking about surveillance that severely prejudices fundamental rights.

Eavesdropping, secretly entering people's property?

Exactly. It always needs a reason and arguments for why it is impossible to collect evidence any other way. And the latter must be credible.

There are enough cases where judges refuse to grant the prosecution the right of surveillance, just as the prosecution avoids exercising surveillance without good reason. Evidence collected using surveillance ends up in court eventually and is subject to judicial control and challenges from the defense.

Having no good reason for surveillance other than taking the easy way out in terms of collecting evidence is one sure way to derail your entire case.

Can you answer the question why some cases drag on for years? Former Tartu mayor Kajar Lember managed to write a book about his case as it took the prosecution three years to go from suspicions to trial.

The reasons may have to do with the police looking for more evidence, the prosecution taking a long time to draw up charges or the court's own schedule.

Is it normal when a local level corruption case is investigated for three years?

That depends. If we are talking about a major case with a lot of involved persons, several business entities used to move around money… It takes a long time to go through accounting records, trying to understand how everything happened.

I recently compared different types of expert analyses, and accounting analyses tend to take the longest.

So, it is inevitable the investigation could end up taking that long?

Not always.

What I was coming to is that while there could be objective reasons for investigations taking very long, we also cannot rule out human error or poor work organization that could be improved as the reason.

Do you agree that the prosecution letting the public know they suspect someone is often enough to convict them in the eyes of society?

We must admit that people often follow the "where there's smoke, there's fire" mentality when the state points the finger at someone.

They often overlook the fact that the police are still investigating the matter and the prosecution working on the state's version, its speculation. That it only seems to us the person has done something that is reprehensible at that stage.

A person should only become a criminal after the court has heard their case and made a decision.

The presumption of innocence is often just a figure of speech then?

It is not a figure of speech. It is largely up to the prosecution and the court to make sure their messages to the public give no grounds for people to think it's a done deal.

Have such messages been too strong at times?

It is possible there have been cases where communication has been too confident. There have been far more cases where people should have chosen their words more carefully.

You acquitted a policeman accused of manslaughter and a writer charged with producing child pornography when you worked at the Tallinn Circuit Court. How easy is it to write an acquittal?

How easy or difficult it is to write the ruling does not depend on whether someone needs to be acquitted or convicted.

How so? One will send someone to prison for a decade while the other will find them innocent.

That is true. If there is reason to acquit the person, you might feel relieved, while it might not always be the best thing because an acquittal could also have procedural reasons. You might feel differently about a case, but you cannot ignore the law based on your gut feeling.

The difficulty of writing a decision could depend on entirely different circumstances. For example, having to look at evidence or a legal approach from a different angle. Life is full of surprises, and it might happen things we have grown accustomed to seeing in a certain light need to be treated differently.

This sounds very complicated.

It is complicated, finding that new perspective. Thinking about arguments you're not used to considering either in conversation or in writing – it can be complicated.

Andres Parmas. Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR

Is the law always the same as justice?

Ideally, they would coincide as often as possible, but it is not always the case.

It also happens that criminals are acquitted and innocent people plead or are found guilty?

(Pauses) It cannot be ruled out 100 percent. But our rules and the training of people working in the criminal justice system should be aimed at minimizing such mistakes.

Should the state apologize to people who have been mistakenly considered to be criminals and if so, who should deliver that apology?

The general answer to that question is yes.

As prosecutor general, will you be willing to apologize to someone acquitted of a crime the state charged them with?

I will apologize in a situation where I deem an apology to be warranted. Both for myself and for the Prosecutor's Office as prosecutor general.

However, we do not need to apologize to everyone who is acquitted with a bouquet and a whipped cream tart as the ruling has already given them justice and allowed everyone to move on with their lives.

Situations where the state needs to apologize arise when a serious mistake has been made. They happen sometimes, and it is important not to hide under a rock and pretend nothing happened when they do. If the state has wronged the person without good cause, its representatives need to be courageous enough to admit it.

Have you been wrongfully accused of something?

I'm sure it has happened, while I cannot think of an example right now.

But I can. Because you belonged to the Isamaa and Res Publica Union (IRL) in 2006-2013, some have now asked whether you're a political prosecutor general.

(Laughs) Such allegations have no merit. My political background is nonexistent.

The Reform Party remained impartial during the Riigikogu Legal Affairs Committee vote over your candidacy because they felt your bid moved through political channels. Why did you fail to convince them otherwise?

I was rather left with the impression that the Reform Party group doubted my management skills, that I do not have enough experience as a leader.

Opposition leader Kaja Kallas believes you were recommended for the post by Minister of Foreign Affairs Urmas Reinsalu (Isamaa). Was that the case?

As far as I know, Kaja Kallas has indeed claimed something of the sort.

However, Urmas Reinsalu has not asked me to run for prosecutor general, and I have no knowledge of Reinsalu having suggested it to Aeg. I was approached by the justice minister, we had a friendly conversation and as a result, he decided to take my candidacy to the government.

Whatever the case, you must now fight for the independence of the prosecution and the recently visible political desire for prosecutors to make decisions that politicians find clear and acceptable. Can you handle it?

I must.

When you finally take office, will you ask prosecutors why they terminated Mary Kross' criminal case over lack of public interest to prosecute instead of taking it to trial?

Those answers have been given to the press by both the case prosecutor and the judge. I have no reason to ask any further questions, that case is closed. Let's say it was what it was.

You wrote in a Facebook post at the time that you are depressed by how some of your colleagues – including prosecutors – lack social nerve to such a degree. How far should prosecutors follow their social nerve?

It cannot be the main thing. But a measure of social sensitivity is very important for anyone working in the field. When a prosecutor or a judge no longer has a feel for what matters to society, where problems lie, or cannot be bothered to understand where something is coming from – reasons for crimes committed – something is wrong.

Did traitor Herman Simm deserve to be released from prison early – a decision supported by the prosecutor?

Yes, pragmatically speaking, we could ask what sending Simm to prison for 12.5 years gained us. A conviction and the public shame that comes with it is enough to turn a person into a pariah in this case. However, his was a serious crime that posed a threat to our independence and survival as a free nation. A serious punishment is entirely fitting.

And I believe that in certain situations, regarding truly nefarious deeds, we could demand people serve their time from beginning to end."

Based on the examples of the Mary Kross case and Simm's early release – to what extent will you interfere in the work of prosecutors, tell them you are not happy with their decisions. Or are prosecutors independent in their decisions?

Prosecutors must be able to act independently in specific cases. It cannot be a case of someone instructing them like a kindergarten teacher. But I intend to share my understanding of how to shape penal practice etc. with both future colleagues and the public.

Do you know who wrote the following lines: "By punishing every misstep by the toughest measures available, we will get a callous society that will have lost its sensitivity to punishment."

(Smiles) It rings a bell. It was a well-known Estonian jurist and circuit court judge.

Very good. It was you in March of last year when you wrote on the pages of Eesti Päevaleht that Estonian skiers who used doping should not be portrayed as criminals even though many wanted to crucify them. Why so lenient?

I do not believe I was being lenient or that I am in general. It is just my understanding of penal law that it is the biggest club we have, only to be used when lighter measures fail to regulate matters.

If we threaten penal law too often or punish people too harshly for minor infractions, we are doing ourselves a disservice. Fear of punishment, sensitivity to punishment, public condemnation of people found guilty of crimes – all of it gets devalued.

Was the judge right to classify the so-called doping file of ski coach Mati Alaver and restrict journalists access to it?

It is difficult for me to understand why this file should remain secret. I believe that the public needs access to administration of justice and its results as often as possible.

Toomas Sildam's interview with Andres Parmas. Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR

There are two general attitudes. Yours – according to which penal law is not a suitable tool for shaping or enforcing social morals – and former justice minister Urmas Reinsalu's, who criticizes false humanism in criminal policy and overly liberal attitudes when dealing with dangerous criminals.

Yes, I admit Urmas Reinsalu and I have different understandings when it comes to some aspects of criminal policy.

What matters to me is that in situations where the state decides to use criminal policy tools, they would be effective and produce results. I cannot deny that there are people that should be placed under lock and key for a long time. But it should not be done lightly or to people who instead have a serious disease in need of treatment.

Should a serial drunk driver always be sent to prison?

Addressing the problem that pushed them to commit crimes – alcoholism – is more important than putting alcoholics in prison. Taking away a person's driver's license and sending them to prison for six months does nothing to answer the question of what led them to alcoholism. Will they be a better person in six months' time? No. There will still be plenty wrong with them.

That said, if we think about what a drunk-driving lifestyle could lead to – thinking of the recent tragedy in Saaremaa…

I was just about to ask whether you remember what just happened?

I remember it very well. Once things go that far, it is clear such a person belongs in prison.

Perhaps the serial drunk driver should have been imprisoned before he killed three people in Saaremaa?

Like I said – prison sentences cannot solve these people's problems. We could, of course, ask whether we should send them to jail for three years instead of six months…

Your opponent Urmas Reinsalu says they need to be punished for society to take revenge.

Punishments are always society's revenge to some extent.

I'm not saying that persons who commit a crime as a result of an addiction disorder should be pampered. Of course not. However, penal law intervention should be rational and aim for results. If the only effect is hurting people, paying for pain with pain, we have failed to do anything about the underlying reasons that have led them astray. We are wasting resources and not addressing the disease.

It would be akin to someone whose toes hurt but who cannot abide going to the doctor because treatment queues are long and doctors have you do exercises in the morning going to a witch doctor instead for semi-precious gemstones and essential oils. It will do nothing for their toes.

You will have to restrain yourself on social media from now on. You can no longer write, as you did in November of 2018, that it is difficult to feel good and proud in Estonia because "there is too much extremist banging on."

Indeed, my new position requires different use of words and approach to my own attitudes. In general, not only on social media.

Will you retain your social curiosity?


To echo your recommendation to University of Tartu law students from last summer: "The world needs to be studied until your eyes go blind, mind gives up and your hand tires of writing letters on paper."

I still subscribe to that.

You told Delfi that it is a problem for the Prosecutor's Office that a lot of good people have left in recent years, to go work as lawyers and judges. Do you know why these good people have left the prosecution?

For some, their work in the prosecution has offered all it has to offer or they want a career jump, have been made a better offer. Your income has a ceiling in the prosecution, while for a lawyer, the sky is the limit as the saying goes. There have also been departures following personal reasons, unsuccessful cooperation with colleagues or managers.

Will your predecessor Lavly Perling continue to work for the prosecution?

I cannot yet say where Lavly Perling will work in the future. I definitely want to discuss her wishes with Perling herself. She has previously said it would be interesting for her to continue as a courtroom prosecutor, but there are other options as well. I cannot tell you more today.

What is going through your head waiting for Edgar Savisaar's corruption trial that started two and a half years ago and should reach a verdict by January 14?

Plenty. I'm sure everyone wants this thing to finally be over. It will be interesting to see what the court decides. Personally, I'm saddened the proceedings no longer concern everyone initially involved. It would be better for society were the ruling to also concern Edgar Savisaar who was exempt from standing trial due to his poor health.

Have I failed to ask an important question?

Only you can answer that.

A question that seems mandatory at this point and that you were awaiting, something about the deep state for example?

It is not exactly a question I'm excited about and eager to answer once more.

Is it difficult to talk about something that doesn't exist?

(Smiles) That too.

The government appointed you the next prosecutor general on January 9, yet you will only be taking office from February 3. Why the delay?

It is an entirely natural delay to allow me to wrap up everything at the court, get up to speed on the situation at the Office of the Prosecutor General and take over smoothly.

Will you and your family move from Tartu to Tallinn or will you be spending your mornings and evenings working on the train?

The answer to both questions is no.

You will neither move nor take the train?

Precisely, I will not take the train every day. I have been spending a part of my week in Tallinn for years. While I will have to spend more time in Tallinn now, my family will stay in Tartu.

And the Kosovo Special Chambers will have to find a new judge to replace you?

They do not have to replace me at all, but my ability to participate in the work of the court is gone for now.

What about your doctoral thesis "Domestic implementation of international criminal law based on the example of Estonia"?

I have not given up on that. The core of the thesis made up of articles is ready. All the articles have been published and I'm working on the so-called general chapter. I aim to finish and hand in the thesis in the near future.

Toomas Sildam's interview with Andres Parmas. Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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