Outgoing prosecutor general Lavly Perling told ERR that if the Prosecutor's Office starts being attacked for acquittals and people start demanding apologies for them, then complicated corruption cases will never see the light of day again, as they will just be swept under the rug.
The subject of Tartu ex-deputy mayor Artjom Suvorov's recent final acquittal in the Supreme Court came up on Vikerraadio news program "Uudis+," alongside the question of whether the Prosecutor's Office should have apologized to Suvorov afterward.
"Should we apologize when the state has made a mistake in the course of a criminal investigation?" Perling asked. "The answer is certainly yes! I have been a prosecutor for over 20 years, and I myself have also apologized to people, in cases where the prosecution has made a mistake or failed to verify something out of carelessness and this has caused people suffering."
It is another matter, however, whether the state should apologize just for an acquittal.
"I'm willing to say that the Prosecutor's Office shouldn't apologize solely because of an acquittal," she continued. "Here's a very important question — why is someone found not guilty?" She noted that under the rule of law, only the courts can administer justice, and the Prosecutor's Office's job as public prosecutor is to deliver materials to the court so that the court can administer justice.
"Having been a prosecutor who once handled the so-called Rävala Avenue criminal case, there were days when I came to court and understood that this case should be terminated," Perling recalled. "And when I would read the evidence again, then I would understand that it still needs to be taken to court. And so I would weigh things and weigh things. And not just me myself, but my colleagues as well. And what was ultimately the deciding factor was the fact that the Prosecutor's Office is an institution that must provide the courts with the opportunity to administer justice."
According to the outgoing prosecutor general, it is a question of what is more important from a societal point of view. She found that what is more important for society as a whole is that the courts are given the opportunity to administer justice.
"If we start lightly saying that there cannot be any acquittals — that we will start apologizing for this — that we will start holding prosecutors liable for this — then it could end up happening as a result that very complex and difficult economic matters, but also corruption matters, will never see the light of day because they will be terminated and swept under the rug." She added that a prosecutor cannot be afraid of going to court.
Asked by the program host why the Prosecutor's Office organized a big conference attended by all major media outlets when Suvorov was arrested but didn't do the same when Suvorov was acquitted, Perling asked in return why the press wanted this info.
Media and the courts
"On my last day of work, I will allow myself this kind of response: dear journalists, why do you yourselves do this?" she asked. "Why do you ask for this info? Why do you show up with your cameras? Shall we agree that, going forward, the Prosecutor's Office won't provide any more information? Can the Prosecutor's Office make is decisions in the peace and quiet of their offices? Is this a better option for society?"
Perling said that she herself has based her approach on the central tenet that the state must tell people the truth, and that during the pretrial investigation phase, the Prosecutor's Office is the state.
"We have based our approach on the principle that we must tell the truth and that we must defend fair trials," she said. "I have never supported the idea that the Prosecutor's Office talks too much. We drew our own conclusions based on the Suvorov press conference as well. But does the Prosecutor's Office have to explain to society what it does and why? I find that society has the right to know on what grounds someone is suspected of theft in a corruption case."
According to the outgoing prosecutor general, something for both the Prosecutors Office and the courts as well as the press to consider is how to improve cooperation among themselves and ensure that people aren't found guilty before the verdict is in.
Regarding Suvorov's case in particular, Perling recommended journalists review the court file as well as attend more trials themselves.
An amendment to the Code of Criminal Procedure entered into force a year and a half ago granting courts the right to impose restrictions on media coverage of what was going on in the courtroom, and courts have started taking advantage of this opportunity. Perling said that when this new provision was introduced, the Prosecutor's Office believed that there was no point to overly restrict the public side of trials.
"But you have to understand the other side as well," she continued. "We're in court, and some witnesses are testifying in the courtroom while others are outside and go testify later. We cannot administer justice if people just outside the door are getting information from the courtroom via liveblog. Of course the more information there is, the better for society. But I'd like the press to understand as well that our job is to reach a decision objectively and honestly. That witnesses aren't influenced, and for that we occasionally need restrictions."
Editor: Aili Vahtla