The suspicion brought against Ida-Viru County Riigikogu candidate Aivo Peterson, who was recently taken into custody for two months as a suspect in a criminal offense against the state, is based on the same section of Estonia's Penal Code that saw pro-Russian political activist Sergei Seredenko sentenced to five and a half years in prison last fall.
The Prosecutor's Office announced Friday that the Estonian Internal Security Service (ISS) had detained three men on suspicion of establishing a relationship antagonistic to the Republic of Estonia, among them Aivo Peterson, a leader of the Koos/Vmeste ("Together") movement and member of the Estonian United Left Party (EÜVP) who earned nearly 4,000 votes in Electoral Disrict 7 (Ida-Viru County) in the recent Riigikogu elections.
This is a preliminary suspicion, which may change or be specified during the course of proceedings, the Prosecutor's Office emphasized.
ISS spokesperson Harrys Puusepp explained to ERR that the three men taken into custody had suspicions brought against them based on section 2351 of the Penal Code, which talks about the establishment of a relationship antagonistic to the state.
"What makes the establishment of a relationship with a foreign state, an organization of a foreign state or a person acting on the assignment of a foreign state is the purpose and nature of the relationship — to commit a serious criminal offense against the state, such as treason and, in the case of a foreigner, supporting intelligence activities or committing non-violent acts against Estonia," Puusepp said. "That foreign state in this case is the Russian Federation."
He confirmed that it isn't possible to reveal the details of this specific case yet, i.e. with whom and under what circumstances the suspects had established and maintained contact.
"In the case of a crime against the state, awareness is [a] crucial [component] — meaning that they either understood or at least had to understand that they were in contact with representatives of a foreign state — with Russia, Russian organizations and people acting in their interests," the ISS spokesperson emphasized.
"Submitting to and being guided by Kremlin influence and the Kremlin regime's objectives in the course of such a relationship can lead to a serious crime against the state," he added.
Puusepp said that he couldn't reveal when the activities that led to the suspicion in question first began. "It is information gathered as a result of the ISS' steady efforts that led to the criminal proceeding," he noted.
He also confirmed that the other two individuals detained alongside Peterson are Andrey Andronov and Dmitri Rootsi, who have already been linked to the case in public sources. Andronov has previously come up in the media as an activist in the Night Watch and for having beaten his wife.
The ISS spokesperson said that it's difficult to set a specific deadline for such proceedings.
"It is important to comprehensively and objectively identify possible committed crimes within the framework of the criminal proceeding," he said. "As previously stated, the suspicion is preliminary, which depending on the nature of the evidence collected may change. We are conducting the proceeding as quickly as possible and as thoroughly as needed to clarify the circumstances of the crime."
Six years, or up to 15 or life
The establishment of a relationship antagonistic to the state is addressed in section 2351 of the Penal Code, according to which the establishment or maintenance of a relationship with a foreign state, an organization of a foreign state or a person acting on the assignment of a foreign state with the aim of committing a criminal offense against the Republic of Estonia is punishable by up to six years in prison.
Section 235 of the same states that membership in a permanent organization which consists of three or more persons who share a distribution of tasks and which has been formed with the intention of carrying out violent activities directed against the Republic of Estonia, or forming, leading or the recruitment of members to such an organization, is punishable by five to fifteen years or life.
The Office of the Prosecutor General sought from Harju County Court for the three men to be taken into custody. The court granted the prosecution's request and found that the suspicion brought against them was justified.
The first-tier court found that, if freed, the three men may begin evading criminal proceedings, and that there is also a risk that they may continue committing crimes.
Harju County Court granted the prosecution's request to take the men against whom an initial suspicion has been brought into custody for a period of two months.
This order has not yet entered into force and can be appealed in the second-tier Tallinn Circuit Court.
The criminal investigation is being led by the Office of the Prosecutor General and conducted by the ISS.
More than ten years' cooperation with Russian reps
Sergei Seredenko was arrested by the ISS in March 2021 as a suspect in activities against the Republic of Estonia. The Office of the Prosecutor General later charged him with maintaining a relationship antagonistic to the Republic of Estonia.
Last September, Harju County found Seredenko guilty under section 2351 of the Penal Code and sentenced him to nearly the maximum with five years and six months in prison.
According to the charges, between November 15, 2009 and March 3, 2021, Seredenko had knowingly established and maintained a relationship antagonistic to the Republic of Estonia with seven individuals acting in the interests and on the orders of government agencies of the Russian Federation.
Seredenko forwarded them information, drew up and published articles in cooperation with them, took part in events organized by them as well as participated in the activity of organizations aimed at realizing Russian influencing activity for Russian foreign and security policy purposes with the goal of dividing Estonian society, discrediting the Republic of Estonia and its institutions and violate Estonia's constitutional order, independence and territorial integrity as well as security.
The court found that in committing this crime, Seredenko received at least €5185.79 in assets and at least six decorations.
ERR reported in September that ISS Director General Arnold Sinisalu had described Seredenko as an example of how one primes the necessary talking points for the Kremlin, which the Kremlin and Russia's Foreign Ministry then later cite, based on the logic that pretext must be established through one's useful agents to justify intervention if needed.
Last week, the Supreme Court of Estonia chose to accept Seredenko's lawyer's appeal after a second-tier court upheld his guilty verdict.
Aivo Peterson is a leading member of the Koos/Vmeste movement and ran for election on EÜVP's candidate list in Ida-Viru County in the 2023 Riigikogu elections, where he earned 3,969 votes.
He has previously made statements supporting Russia's current policy as well as visited Russian-occupied Ukrainian territory; he most recently returned to Estonia from such a trip last week.
Editor: Aili Vahtla