Estonian NATO ship captain steps down amid smuggling scandal

EML Sakala M314 (left). © MKFI
56 cases of cigarettes and 1,000 liters of alcohol were found onboard the Estonian minehunter Sakala, which is taking part in NATO operations in the Baltic Sea. The ship’s commander has taken full responsibility and handed in his resignation.

On 11 November Estonian customs officers searched the vessel, which is part of the Standing NATO Mine Countermeasures Group 1 (SNMCMG1), and discovered a considerable haul of illicit tobacco and hard liquor, all of which lacked revenue stamps. The Defense Ministry then reported on Wednesday that the captain of the ship, Sten Sepper, took full responsibility for the smuggled goods, and offered his resignation which was promptly accepted by Defense Minister Hannes Hanso.

“The navy chief has resigned due to this unacceptable story and accompanying reputational damage, irrespective of where criminal proceedings and departmental investigations will eventually lead,” said Defence Minister Hanso, as reported by Delfi.

“Navy Captain Sten Sepper has made his decision to resign in line with military values and an officer’s honor. Estonian officers must be fully prepared to assume full responsibility for what happens in his or her area of responsibility.”

Despite quitting as the captain of the ship, Setter continues to serve in the Estonian Defence Forces at a naval academy.

Another officer, Lieutenant Commander Ott Laanemetsa, has also handed in his resignation over the incident.

The amount of cigarettes and alcohol discovered was over five times the value it needed to be to be considered a misdemeanor, meaning what has occurred is a crime. An investigation is ongoing, and authorities have not yet revealed where the contraband was coming from nor where it was being taken. Since there were more than 30 people onboard, it’s not clear whether it belonged to Captain Sepper or Laanemetsa either.

“This is a very unfortunate incident, which the defense forces will certainly not tolerate,” navy spokesman Karl Baumeister told Delfi. “The Defence Forces have been fully cooperating with the Prosecutor's Office and the Tax and Customs Board, to help identify all the facts of the case.”

“It’s important for people to trust that, despite the individual regrettable incident, law-abiding people continue to serve in the armed forces,” he added.

Estonia is generally thought to have low levels of corruption, ranking 23 out of 167 nations on Transparency International’s 2015 Corruption Perception Index. However, its position in Europe has made it an attractive hub for smugglers, with cheap cigarettes being brought in from Russia and cheap alcohol making its way to pricy Finland.