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Ratas: Government will discuss Estonia ferry disaster investigation soon

The 'Broken Line' monument in Tallinn.
The 'Broken Line' monument in Tallinn. Source: Jan Pohunek/Creative Commons

Prime Minister Jüri Ratas said on Thursday that ministers will soon discuss the Estonia ferry disaster and the request for a new investigation. Earlier this week Ratas discussed the sanctity of the grave agreement concerning the wreckage of the ferry with the Swedish prime minister.

Although the Tallinn Administrative Court ruled last October that the government must respond properly to the request for a new investigation of the relatives of those killed on the ferry, this has not yet been done.

According to the court's decision, the government had until January 25 to respond to the request, but it was not possible to form a position by that time.

Instead, the government decided in January that the Minister of Justice Raivo Aeg (Isamaa) would form an expert working group to resolve the request from family members of the victims of the ferry Estonia disaster. The working group was expected to submit a report by the end of March with an overview of future activities.

The issue, which has been constantly postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic, will be discussed by ministers in the near future, Ratas said at a government press conference on Thursday.

"We have an obligation to answer on behalf of this government. We will definitely do that," Ratas said.

The issue was also discussed on Tuesday by Ratas and the prime minister of Sweden during a working trip to Stockholm.

When asked whether amending the sanctity of the grave treaty concerning the Estonia wreckage was also discussed, he said Estonia has no wish to change or reopen the treaty. 

Last October, the Tallinn Administrative Court ruled in favor of a complaint from the relatives of the victims asking the Estonian state to initiate a new investigation into the shipwreck. 

As the request was not duly answered, the court gave the government 60 days to consider the request and to take a position on the initiation of a new investigation.

The ferry Estonia sank on the night of September 28, 1994, sailing from Tallinn to Stockholm. The sinking of Estonia is the largest maritime disaster in peacetime in the Baltic Sea, killing 852 people from 17 countries.

The shipwreck was investigated by a joint commission formed by the governments of Estonia, Finland and Sweden between 1994 and 1997 and by a government commission headed by the Public Prosecutor's Office in 2005-2009. 

In 1995, Estonia, Finland and Sweden signed an agreement to protect the shipwreck, which prohibits diving to the wreck.

Has there been a violation of the sanctity of grave agreement?

Postimees reported in October 2019 that in September of that year, the Finnish coast guard boat Turva recorded the arrival of a German-flagged vessel, Fritz Reuter, at the site where the wreckage of the Estonia lies on the seabed and the launch a diving robot into the sea from that vessel. The crew of the German vessel had previously notified the Finnish coast guard of a plan to perform a diving at the ferry's sinking site.

While the resting place of the Estonia is situated in international waters, it lies in the Finnish economic area, where Finnish authorities can only hinder the actions of Finnish-registered vessels.

Immediately after the violation of the sanctity of the grave, the Finnish border guard and the central criminal police started a joint investigation. The investigator in charge of the inquiry, Jarkko Toivonen, said that the authorities had identified all the persons on board the vessel at the time.

"After the diving, the ship returned to Germany and we identified everyone who had been on board. In addition, we are cooperating mainly with the authorities of Sweden," Toivonen said.

There were altogether 11 passengers and crew members on board the vessel, including four crew members of German and Polish citizenship. Among the seven passengers there were two Swedish citizens, two Norwegian citizens and three citizens of Germany.

According to Toivonen, the diving was organized by a Norwegian film company that is making a documentary firm. 

The investigator said the firm company was aware that diving to the wreck of the Estonia was forbidden under Estonian, Finnish and Swedish laws, but not under German law.  

Since there were no Finnish nationals among the suspects, the principal responsibility for the investigation shifted to the authorities of Sweden.

Swedish prosecutor Helene Gestrin would not comment on the course of the proceedings.

"As the investigation is only in the early stages, I cannot disclose what we are doing specifically at this point," she said.

Violation of the sanctity of grave carries a maximum punishment of one year in jail under Finnish law and up to two years in jail under the law of Sweden.


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Editor: Helen Wright

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