Maria Entsik writes that when it comes to corruption, it is especially important to bring controversial cases, even those that may result in acquittals to court, as public discourse on these matters influences the delineation of ethical boundaries.
The prosecution has been subjected to unprecedented criticism over the past week, including editorial rebukes and live air shows with concerns raised regarding the management of the public prosecution.
So what actually happened?
Within a few days, the Court of First Instance issued acquittal judgments in two cases that had been extensively debated in public. Also, in another case, the public prosecutor asked a withdrawal from the proceedings because there was not enough time to prepare.
Is the criticism leveled at the prosecution warranted?
Before answering this question, which anyone can do, it is worth making a few observations.
In Estonia, the proportion of convictions and acquittals is heavily skewed towards convictions. Over the last five years, the proportion of acquittals has been around 1 percent. Less than 7 percent of defendants have been fully acquitted in general trials. There is often resentment as to whether we are living up to the concept of the rule of law, when almost everyone is convicted.
We have been proud of Estonia's ranking in the Corruption Perceptions Index, which has been steadily rising for years and now ranks 14th–17th. I believe that one of the reasons why we are in such a good position is that Estonia has invested substantially in investigating corruption, both at the level of the investigative bodies and the prosecution. Criminal cases have been opened and closed against politicians and officials in various positions, with serious consequences and major damage but also seemingly insignificant ones.
In the case of corruption, I would argue that it is also important to bring to justice those cases that are controversial, even those that may end in acquittal, because public debate on these issues also shapes our cultural space and determines where we draw the line between what is acceptable and what is not. This is particularly necessary in cases of corruption, where society may have questions about how that line is drawn.
The public is often reminded that the prosecutor's office considers free haircuts to be a serious case of corruption. But does anyone remember that the prosecutor's office originally brought this case to court not only for bribery, but also for violation of an operating restriction and large-scale benefit fraud? Should we really have turned a blind eye to the fact that the deputy mayor accepted a free haircut while at the same time allocating €10,000 from the city budget to build a staircase for the same hairdresser?
I am not suggesting that the prosecution should not always carefully consider, which cases deserve to go to trial and which do not. It certainly should. And that's what the prosecutor's office is doing, and we're not going to the courts to go fishing. But I also hope that the current criticism will not push us to the point where we turn a blind eye to controversial situations just to be safe.
If we want to keep corruption at bay in Estonia, we need to work consistently on both prevention and investigation of corruption, and we need to look at those cases that are not black and white. Let us also remember that in the Republic of Estonia justice is administered by a court, and in order to be able to do so, the prosecutor's office must bring the case to court.
Procedural resources and the Port of Tallinn case
It is certainly not normal for a prosecutor to ask to be excused from a hearing. Fortunately, however, this is a unique situation in our institution. It is worth remembering that our country is a small one, and the burden of responsibility for such large and high-profile cases is heavy on the prosecutor. Even the most hardened prosecutor is only a human being, not an insensitive machine.
While such a withdrawal request is a distraction, what is more important is that despite the various challenges that have beset this case, the prosecution has managed to continue its involvement in the proceedings without interruption, with hearings continuing and the prosecution preparing for trial.
What can we learn from this?
There is no need to jump to conclusions about the "sand castle collapsing" or the process "breaking into pieces." These conclusions can only be reached if the court finds that the event did not occur, that there is no evidence, or that the evidence was obtained illegally.
It would not be the first time that a district or state court has disagreed with a lower court's decision. When it doesn't, let's remind ourselves that we are fortunate to live in a country governed by the rule of law and in a society that wants to live free of corruption, and that we have the courage to take action against corruption.
But the lesson for the Office of the Prosecutor is that both its important processes and its people must be protected. We will do a little less, if necessary, in order to focus on the most important cases, but we will do it better and to the end.
Editor: Kristina Kersa