AK: Convicted China spy brought several notable firsts

Chinese flag.
Chinese flag.

An Estonian national sentenced to three years' prison time after being found guilty of spying on behalf of the People's Republic of China had been involved in espionage for several years, ETV News show "Aktuaalne kaamera" (AK) reported Friday evening.

AK shed more light on the arrest, trial and sentencing of marine scientist and Tarmo Kõuts, which contained several notable "firsts".

Kõuts' sentencing was first reported Friday lunchtime, but the judgment meted out by Harju County Court took place on March 2.

Kõuts' three years' jail time was the result of a plea deal, which also saw proceeds of his activities confiscated from him.

He is also the first Estonian citizen to be convicted of spying for China since the 1991 restoration of independence; most espionage cases in Estonia to date had involved individuals charged with spying for the Russian Federation.

Kõuts is also notable in not being either an active state official or active Estonian Defense Forces (EDF) member, but rather, a well-known scientist.

He had worked in related areas – 2006-2014 he was a member of the defense ministry's research council, AK reported, and was also Estonia's representative to NATO in his field.

No state secrets were compromised as a result of Kõuts' activities, AK went on, while Kõuts also had a woman accomplice. One of the two sections of the penal code Kõuts was charged under is relatively new, dating back three years, and has only seen one other conviction to date.

Kõuts did not have legal representation during a six-month pre-trial investigation (i.e. from early September when he was detained to early March when he was convicted – ed.); AK called the sentence he received nonetheless relatively light.

Harrys Puusepp, head of bureau at the Internal Security Service (ISS, also known as Kapo) cautioned against tarring scientists in Estonia with the same brush.

He said: "The point is not that we should take a dim view of scientists. Simply it's important to understand that in this case, Chinese intelligence certainly has an interest in this field. It is also important to make clear that this didn't happen accidentally."

Puusepp could not comment on the details of the plea deal struck between the court and Kõuts' representation, adding that a plea bargain was to be expected in a case of this nature.

"In such cases, if people do not own up themselves, we will be able to detect things and prove them, while the court case ends in such a way that the individual must be prepared to take responsibility," Puusepp said.

Kõuts was detained in September last year, while a woman detained at the same time and who the prosecutor's office has charged with the same activities has not been tried yet. Her case is pending at Harju County Court.

He was one of several people convicted under the section of the penal code relating to conspiring against the state, though as noted he is the first person to have done so on behalf of China.

"In recent years, the ISS has been saying that Russia is by no means the only country that can endanger the security of the Estonian state due to espionage. Indeed, this is the first time that this warning has been confirmed by a court judgement," Harrys Puusepp told AK.

China's' embassy in Tallinn recently hit out at this year's foreign security service (Välisluuramet) yearbook over what it called misleading information which could harm China-Estonia relations – a complaint similar to one which had been made over the previous year's yearbook.

The other section under which Kõuts was convicted relates to intelligence activities compromising Estonia and only dates back to January 2019, with one other individual having been tried under that section before Kõuts, public prosecutor Inna Ombler told AK.

The original AK slot (in Estonian) is here.

Please note Tarmo Kõuts has no connection with a former EDF chief of the same name.


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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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