The Prosecutor General has been asked by MPs to launch an investigation into Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto’s handling of events surrounding the repatriation of Finns living in the al-Hol camp in Syria.
Parliament's Constitutional Law Committee announced on Wednesday that it was requesting the prosecutor to start a preliminary investigation into Haavisto's actions.
The issue centres on a dispute between the foreign minister and one of his top officials.
Last year, the foreign minister had been in the firing line over allegations that he wanted to push through a plan to bring the women and children back from the camp to Finland, while sidelining Pasi Tuominen, the ministry's Director-General of Consular Services and ostensibly at that point the official in charge of al-Hol issues.
The pre-trial investigation is particularly focused on why the Foreign Minister wanted to move Consular Chief Pasi Tuominen to the new position, according to committee chair Johanna Ojala-Niemelä.
Why re-assign official?
"It has emerged that Haavisto had issued a preparatory order to senior management in the ministry that Tuominen should be removed from his post. The question is why he had to be taken out of office after al-Hol tasks were already taken away from him," said Ojala-Niemelä.
According to Ojala-Niemelä, there was no evidence of pressure from officials, but the committee has a seed of suspicion that Haavisto's intention was to get rid of the dissenting official by transferring him to another position.
However, the committee did not consider it relevant whether there was a government decision on al-Hol, as the matter had been discussed in the government’s 'iltakoulu' evening sessions —informal meetings held between ministers convened by the Prime Minister.
The prosecutor and police can now investigate by means not available to the Committee.
"The pre-trial threshold is met to the extent that it is being considered whether there has been a misuse of official position or is it a breach of official duty," said Ojala-Niemelä.
According to Ojala-Niemelä, the committee's move is not a statement that the case concerning Minister Haavisto should be brought before a national court. That position can be taken only after the preliminary investigation has been completed.
Haavisto to continue duties
Prime Minister Sanna Marin said during her visit to Germany that she was happy for Haavisto to continue in post during the investigation.
"The Constitutional Law Committee has evaluated the situation and made its own decision that there will now be an investigation," said Marin. "In my opinion there is no barrier to the Foreign Minister continuing in his job during that investigation.
Green Party chair Maria Ohisalo said that Haavisto has her confidence and that he will continue as a minister despite the preliminary investigation.
"The Constitutional Law Committee has stated its position and it is good that the prosecutor is clarifying this issue thoroughly. This is good for everyone's legal protection," Ohisalo told reporters in parliament.
Finns Party chair leader Ville Tavio stated that Haavisto should resign for political reasons, but he added that during a pre-trial investigation, the minister is subject to the presumption of innocence.
Last year, Haavisto received the support of 110 MPs in a confidence vote held in Parliament over the al-Hol issue.
Matter may go to court after pre-trial investigation
In December 2019, 10 MPs raised questions to the committee asking them to ascertain whether Haavisto was lawful in his plans to repatriate Finns living in the al-Hol camp. Preliminary investigations do not need to address every question raised by the MPs.
Prosecutor General Raija Toiviainen estimates the preliminary investigation may take the whole of spring.
"That's a rough estimate. The timing will depend on how much of the pre-trial investigation will reveal issues that need to be clarified," Toiviainen said.
After the pre-trial investigation is completed the matter returns to the Constitutional Law Committee, which will consult experts and prepare the final report.
Based on the committee’s report, the prosecution will ultimately be decided by a vote of the 200 MPs in parliament. Charges brought by parliament will be dealt with in the national court.