Suspects in the Danske Bank money laundering case may find tables turned in their favor following a court order that information in the case leaked last year potentially harmed their reputation.
While pre-trial proceedings in the case are still ongoing, even if no guilt is found, the individuals could press for damages. The prosecutor's office says, however, that the leaks, which it says only constituted a small proportion of total information in the hearings and do not negatively affect proceedings, did not emanate in Estonia, and may have done so in a foreign country.
Between September 22 and October 2 2020, materials from the Danske pretrial investigation were published by several Estonian media publications as well as Italian publication l'Espresso.
The original newspaper articles published gave the impression at the time that the entire criminal file may have been leaked.
Prosecutor general's office: Leak has not compromised proceedings
Spokesperson for the Office of the Prosecutor General Kairi Kungas told BNS Friday that: "Our position is that the publication of a story in the media has not rendered establishing the truth in the ongoing criminal proceeding impossible or made it substantially more difficult."
"Furthermore, the prosecutor's office does not see the publication of the story in the media either rendering impossible or making more difficult the lodging of charges in subsequent stages of the proceedings. Nor can it be considered unimportant that a number of public procedural acts have already been conducted in the criminal proceeding, and that the publication of information has not rendered impossible the procedural acts to be conducted in the future, or planned procedural acts," Kungas said.
An appellate court decision Friday found a criminal investigation must be conducted to clarify the circumstances of the leak.
Tallinn Circuit Court satisfies money laundering suspect's complaint on potential reputational loss
Martin Hirvoja, attorney for two Danske Bank officials alleged to have been complicit in the mass-scale money laundering scheme, also saw his complaint – that there had been a failure to initiate criminal proceedings regarding the leak – satisfied by the second-tier Tallinn Circuit Court, BNS reports.
The Tallinn court annulled a regulation from the Office of the Prosecutor General and ordered the office to conduct criminal proceedings to investigate the crime.
Martin Hirvoja submitted an application for the investigation of the leak soon after it became public, but the Office of the Prosecutor General refused to do so.
Hirvoja then appealed the decision to a higher-level prosecutor, but this appeal was also rejected by the Office of the Prosecutor General.
Hirvoja then turned to Tallinn Circuit Court, which annulled the ruling of the Office of the Prosecutor Generalas noted.
Circuit court's ruling cannot be overturned
This obliges the prosecutor's office to conduct criminal proceedings under the relevant section of the Penal Code concerning illegal disclosure of personal data, data concerning the commission of a crime or that of falling victim to the crime, offenses which can be punishable by fines or imprisonment.
The circuit court's ruling cannot be appealed, and the court's opinions on the interpretation and application of the legal provision to the prosecutor's office in the criminal proceedings in question are also binding, BNS reports.
Mihhail Murnikov, Hirvoja's client and the victim in the criminal case surrounding the leak, may also file a compensation claim, though whether he will do so is not clear yet.
The pre-trial investigation is still ongoing, meaning whether there was a money laundering crime committed, or a predicate offense related to money laundering, and thus a case to hear, has still not been established.
If these proceedings are terminated and/or Murnikov acquitted, reputational damage caused by the leak may still be extant and so the criminal case relating to the leak may still stand, BNS reports.
The Office of the Prosecutor General has 10 days to open a criminal investigation into the leak.
"We will definitely do it within the established dates," Kairi Kungas told BNS.
Office of Prosecutor General: Leak didn't originate in Estonia
Kuningas added that it had been trying to establish how the leak occurred since it came to light, saying that the source was not the prosecutor's office, or any law enforcement institutions in Estonia.
"We have made a request to the foreign country where in our opinion the data could have leaked to investigate the possibility of a leak in that country," Kuningas added, the "foreign country" likely referring to Italy, where the leak also hit the media.
The 10 remaining Danske Bank money laundering suspects may also seek to be involved in the present criminal proceedings as victims, as well in pursuing damages, as their right to the presumption of innocence and to a fair and just trial may also have been violated by the crime of leaking, BNS reports.
The money laundering case against Danske Bank, also linked to Swedbank and SEB, involved over €200 billion in potentially illicit funds, mostly of Russian origin, thought to have passed Danske in the period of 2007-2015.
Danske Bank ceased its activities in Estonia in the fall of 2019 after the Financial Supervision Authority ordered the bank to stop operations there earlier that year.
Media leaks in Estonia are a rarity. About half the court materials in the Mati Alaver case were released by Harju County court over a year after his ski-doping case was heard, with even leaks ahead of the announcement of new coalition cabinet line-ups not a common occurrence.
Editor: Andrew Whyte