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Former prosecutor: What issue does Viru court have with prison healthcare?

Steven-Hristo Evestus.
Steven-Hristo Evestus. Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR

Former state prosecutor Steven-Hristo Evestus says that the Viru County Court's actions in releasing Nikolai Ossipenko, a businessman from Kohtla-Järve who is the subject of an investigation into corruption suspicions and is standing trial, call into question the health care system in Estonian prisons.

Ossipenko was detained by the Police and Border Guard Board (PPA) last week over suspicions of bribery and influence peddling activities in the Ida-Viru County town, but was released, as were eight others, mostly local politicians.

A Prosecutor's Office request for his formal arrest was rejected by the county court.

Evestus told ERR that the court's task in deciding whether to authorize an arrest is to identify the legal grounds for same.

"In this concrete case, the county court has found that there is reason for concern that Ossipenko may continue to commit crimes when free and, in addition, evade criminal proceedings.

"This means that there is a high probability that his activities while at large will be aimed at obstructing the criminal proceedings. The fact that the suspect now has free hands to manipulate the truth, however, e.g. to influence co-suspects and witnesses who are officials, and thereby decisively change the outcome of the criminal proceedings, is no insignificant thing," Evestus went on.

"As for his health condition, this is an important fact when taken in consideration with everything else, one which the court cannot ignore and must evaluate," Evestus said.

Evestus noted that, at least so far as the public is concerned, the court's approach and communication on why the state cannot take responsibility for Ossipenko's health has not been fully explained.

"I am not referring to publishing particular types of sensitive health data, but exactly why the court has fomented a lack of trust in another state institution's activities, and thus in the overall healthcare system in Estonia," the former prosecutor, now practicing lawyer, went on.

"I don't mean the publication of special types of personal data concerning the state of health, but precisely why the court has developed a deficit of trust in the activities of another state institution and thus in the health care system as a whole," said Evestus.

"The Imprisonment Act has it that the organization of healthcare when incarcerated falls under the state's healthcare system. For this reason, an arrested person is even guaranteed that if they need treatment which cannot be provided in prison or in a detention center, a doctor will refer the prisoner to a provider of appropriate specialized medical care.

"In previous cases, representatives of prisons have said that there are no problems with previous detentions in prison facilities, meaning that in several cases, sick people have also been sent down, to serve out their sentences. In this case, the court's decision seems to ignore these precedents, and is incomplete, and in this way it offends the sense of justice of everyone."

Evestus said that in a situation where a suspect has previously been suspected of similar crimes, but now new suspicions are on the agenda, this would be a painful blow to both the credibility of the legal system and the overall sense of justice (Ossipenko has been a suspect in corruption cases in the past, in at least one instance evading trial on health grounds – ed.).

"Corruption crimes are covert, which means that uncovering them is extremely challenging, while prosecuting them is even more difficult. Corruption cases at the state and local government level are always accompanied by a security threat, and it is all the more worthwhile to consider whether the release of a person subject to arrest is the final option," Evestus added.

"The functioning of our prison systems' medical care should not be a cause for uncertainty, because there are no known examples where those arrested or of inmates have unduly suffered or died exactly as a result of insufficient or non-existent medical care. Any such case, which would indirectly or directly raise doubts about compliance with the rules of health care in prisons, propagates the issue of such opportunities arising and creates inequality in the treatment of people, and the application of the law."

"Evestus added that whether and to what extent it is viable to speak of an incurable illness in Ossipenko's case, which would preclude any future participation in court hearings not to mention serving a sentence, can be clarified during the criminal proceedings via the appointment of expert witnesses. 

"However, reaching this conclusion must be a clearly impartial and reliable process, where the word of professional experts carries the equivalent heavy weight as does that of 'friends who are doctors'."


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Editor: Andrew Whyte, Aleksander Krjukov

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