Questions over the wider implications of the interface between local residents of the Lääne-Viru County town of Tapa and NATO military personnel from a major base just outside the town have arisen following a recent incident which required the attendance of British Royal Military Police (RMP) personnel.
At the same time, the saga needs to be seen in the context of both the usual role of military police forces based away from the home country, and the particular set-up agreed between the U.K. and Estonia.
The controversy may or may not also arise from public perception on how to categorize a military police force as compared with the more familiar civilian police forces, like Estonia's Police and Border Guard Board (PPA).
Nicknamed the "Redcaps" on account of the scarlet color of their headgear, the RMP's actions getting the aftermath of a brawl under control last Saturday evening, May 15, between off-duty British soldiers and a man and at least two women, were captured on video by a by-stander.
The man appeared to have been pinned to the ground and handcuffed by one of the soldiers, on a public sidewalk, and one of the women appeared to get dragged along the ground by another RMP member. One of the RMPs also appeared to raise an arm, wielding a baton-type implement, at another woman, while verbal exhortations are made in English for some of these individuals and others to keep their distance.
While the fight itself, reported to have broken out in a nearby café, is the subject of an investigation, the one-and-a-half-minute video, taken on a smartphone, of an incident which took place in the street, was presented by regional daily Virumaa Teataja, which carried the video, as evidence of harsh treatment of the Estonian civilians by military police of a foreign nation.
ERR News has asked several experts for their opinion on both of these issues, i.e. the use of force and the question of jurisdiction.
Does the military police of Britain, or any other foreign state, carry authority in Estonia?
Taking the second point first, Estonian Defense Forces (EDF) spokesperson 1 Lt. Taavi Laasik told ERR News that if two countries agree to it, the military police of one can be deployed on the territory of the other, including outside military zones – a point also made by ETV news show "Aktuaalne kaamera" (AK) Thursday night (link in Estonian).
Laasik said: Activities of the allied Military Police in Estonia are regulated by the status agreement between the armed forces of NATO Member States, and according to Article VII point 10 (b), the military police can be used outside of military territories in an agreement and in cooperation with the authorities of the host country, if it is necessary to ensure discipline and order among members of the armed forces."
The RMP can and do police their own soldiers then, as do other military police forces, including those of other NATO states, worldwide.
"The military police deals with incidents which involve members of the armed forces, both in public and in the territory and in the administration of the EDF. If the incident falls within the jurisdiction of the [civilian] Police and Border Guard Board (PPA), the procedure is handled by the PPA. If the incident requires an internal investigation within the EDF, the military police will conduct the proceedings," Laasik went on.
However, the individuals being detained or subdued by the military police members in the video were not British Army soldiers, and, conversely, the military police were not the EDF's Sõjaväepolitsei, or not exclusively so – incidentally, the latter also wear red berets.
Professor Jaan Ginter of the University of Tartu told ERR news that: "The person handcuffed by the RMP was neither a member of the U.K. armed forces nor a person subject to that armed forces' discipline."
This means that civilians are off-limits to military police from the U.K., including in the U.K. itself, he said.
"The RMP has no jurisdiction over civilian persons in the U.K. or overseas. So, the RMP's function at the pizza place could be policing the members of the British military on leave, but not to police civilians," Professor Ginter went on.
At the same time, distinctions have to be made in cases of individuals actually committing criminal offenses, or in the act of self-defense, potentially in conjunction with the local civilian police force – whose patrols may not have been anywhere near the scene of the incident at the time and may have had to come from as far away as Rakvere, around 30 km away, as compared with the RMP, whose base is about 2 km away.
"In Estonia the members of the RMP may participate in law enforcement by way of civic initiative by applying ways of participation provided for by law, i.e., the exercise of self-defense, detaining a person apprehended upon the commission of a criminal offense and take him or her to the PPA, and for the purposes of law enforcement apply other means provided by law (Law Enforcement Act, § 14)," Professor Ginter said.
"The RMP has the same powers in the U.K., under Section 24(A) of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984."
EDF spokesperson 1 Lt. Taavi Laasik concurred.
"Anyone in Estonia also has the right to prevent the commission of a crime on suspicion of a possible crime," Laasik said.
Jaan Ginter added that his comments presupposed the personnel in the Virumaa Teataja video were indeed RMP personnel or those of another branch of the U.K. service police.
"The RMP's primary function while posted overseas is to police the U.K. armed forces personnel and civilians subject to service discipline (these are persons who, whilst not members of the British armed forces, are nevertheless subject to some aspects of British military law and the military justice system)," Ginter added.
While the two issues are related, ERR News asked the question of the proportionate or otherwise use of force based on the video presented.
Was the RMP's use of force on the streets of Tapa last Saturday evening proportionate?
Jaanus Rahumägi, a former police and special service operative, defense and security expert and former Reform Member of the Riigikogu, said judging by the video alone, the RMP personnel were performing their role as per training.
Rahumägi said: "The military police were very professional. This is one case of many, over decades, where you get an interface between soldiers and civil society, then alcohol is involved, this type of thing is normal."
"These are professional military police, prepared and trained for such incidents. It doesn't matter the nationality, it's common knowledge that a combination of alcohol, young people, soldiers etc. can lead to such eventualities."
The Virumaa Teataja video (link in Estonian) in isolation does not shed much light on the overall picture either, he said.
"The video itself describes almost nothing. It simply shows young and drunk people and professional military police trying to resolve the situation. We don't have [footage of] what happened before and after and this is not a professionally made video; it is one which noone, not even lawyers, can make a legal call on."
"There are thousands of such incidents around the world daily, this video is nothing special," Rahumägi added.
Lawyer Paul Keres agreed, adding that the use of force had broadly been appropriate to the situation.
"While I'm not aware of the circumstances leading up to the incident, the RMP's use of force doesn't seem excessive. The Estonians [seen and heard in the video clip] were quite aggressive, as evidenced by a background comment: 'let's run them over'."
"The RMPs were quite professional I would say, on looking at the footage."
Professor Jaan Ginter also said that it was hard to make a call from the video, without knowing more.
He said: "The question is, whether the person the members of the RMP handcuffed was committing a criminal offense."
"From the available video we do not see what exactly happened before the handcuffs were applied. The actions, captured on the video, are severe, but if the handcuffing was justified, the actions are still reasonable," Ginter went on.
"As has been asserted (in the media – ed.), the civilians and the British military persons engaged in the dispute eventually departed quietly. When the PPA patrol arrived, the parties had no claims against each other and the situation had already calmed down. Hence, today we have no evidence that there was a crime in progress when the RMP engaged in the dispute."
"At the same time, we cannot either be sure that there was no crime involved," Ginter added.
Jaanus Rahumägi said that, ultimately, only an investigation can sort out the facts of the matter fully.
"Only an investigation, involving the PPA and the Estonian military police, with all parties involved interviewed, can reveal this. If it then goes to court, they can then state the rights and wrongs and a legal judgment can be made," he said.
That investigation is ongoing.
Editor: Andrew Whyte