A private sector planned investigation into the fate of the MS Estonia, which sank in 1994 with the loss of 852 lives, will not necessarily challenge an ongoing, official state investigation, but will instead complement it, its organizers say.
The planned investigation was announced overnight Tuesday to Wednesday and is backed by Estonian media firm the Postimees Group.
The organization, a private sector fund called SA Mare Liberum, says that if challenged by state vessels guarding the ferry's location, in international waters south of Finland's Turku archipelago, its personnel would likely back down.
At the same time, the organization says that it is not doing anything illegal, since it would not be breaking Estonian law – which does not in fact apply in the area under question.
In a statement issued Wednesday, Margus Kurm, the former state prosecutor heading up SA Mare Liberum's investigation, said that: "We agree to extensively cooperate with safety investigation bodies during the conduct of our investigations and collection of evidence."
"Nevertheless, we are confident that evidence must be analyzed, and conclusions must be made separately, preferably by a number of different international expert groups. This way we will not allow a situation where governments again form a state commission which, despite offering all parties a satisfactory compromise, will not find the truth," Kurm continued, according to a press release.
SA Mare Liberum was founded in July this year.
Kurm, who also headed up an official Estonian government investigation into the MS Estonia disaster in the 2000s, said that the whole truth on the ship's fate was still obscured.
He said: "Although during these decades numerous different investigations have been carried out, they have not been able to give the survivors and close relatives of the deceased exhaustive answers regarding the reason why the Estonia sank. Quite to the contrary, diving operations performed in the past two years have led to new suspicions and questions which require a serious investigation."
Kurm earlier said that he "did not trust" the Estonian Safety Investigation Bureau (OJK) undertaking the official investigation, and whose preliminary dives took place in July.
The SA Mare Liberum project organizers aim to redress what it sees as gaps in the official investigation's procedure. Its largest financial backer is Postimees Grupp, a private media company which owns the daily newspaper of the same name, its regional variants, TV channel Kanal 2, newswire BNS, radio station Kuku among other concerns.
Postimees Grupp spokesperson Jüri Pihel denies the project is aimed at attracting attention to the publication or group to make financial gain, saying that money made from the coverage could be plowed back into the investigation.
"Any media organization in the world that acquires the materials we produce will pay a certain amount of money, and this goes into funding the expedition," Pihel said, according to media reports Wednesday.
Margus Kurm is a former state prosecutor and headed the official Estonian government inquiry into the fate of the Estonia in 2005-2009.
He said questions which need answering, some of which arose from this summer's preliminary dive and others from a 2020 documentary for Swedish television which reignited interest in new investigations, included the details on the bow visor disconnecting from the vessel, the timing of the vehicle ramp becoming open, and damage both to the hull and the vessel's interior.
The detached bow visor-theory remains the official explanation of how water came to enter the ferry's vehicle deck, causing her to sink in just under an hour.
Kurm has also in the past said that one plausible theory for the sinking was a collision with a Swedish Navy submarine.
Sweden's navy in 1994, as now, operated two diesel-electric submarines.
Speaking at a press conference Wednesday, Kurm said that the investigation was legal under Estonian domestic law.
The wreck lies in international waters.
At the same time, Swedish domestic law was irrelevant, he said, due to the vessel being in international waters.
"The activity is legal, we do not need to ask anyone for permission and consent," he summarized.
He did however concede that vessels guarding the site – subject to an international grave peace agreement – may hinder their work and even stop it.
"We do not have an armed security team with us and we do not intend to go into battle with the authorities, I am optimistic and I believe that we will not be physically hindered," Kurm said.
The 2020 documentary, filmed the year before, included dive footage obtained illegally. The film's maker, Henrik Evertsson, is according to reports, resident in Norway and would potentially be subject to a jail sentence or a fine in his native Sweden if he returned.
"Our venture can be seen as offering constructive competition," Kurm said, adding that despite his lack of trust in the authorities, his and Mare Liberum's investigation would complement the official one, due to recommence next year, and would also make all its findings public.
SA Mare Liberum is a fund that was founded in July this year upon an initiative of close relatives of survivors. Kurm is manager of the fund, while concil members are Piret Kergandberg, Raivo Hellerma and Carl Eric Laantee Reintamm.
The Estonian organization representing the families of victims of the 1994 disaster is the similarly-named MTÜ Memento Mare.
The MS Estonia sank in the small hours of September 28, 1994, while en route from Tallinn to Stockholm. The sinking is the largest maritime disaster in peacetime in the Baltic Sea, killing 852 people from 17 countries, and second-largest peacetime maritime disaster ever, so far as European vessels go, after the Titanic.
The date of the proposed new dive was not announced. Diving generally does not take place in the winter months.
The wreck site is a protected grave and special permission is required to dive.
Mare Liberum's site in English is here.
Editor: Andrew Whyte