Feb 26 2011
After Iceland’s Financial Storm, Reykjavik 9 Gather Steam
In one of the most controversial trials in Iceland, four of a group popularly known as the “Reykjavik 9” have been sentenced. A most fascinating, and what many have also termed “absurd” case in the country’s recent history has seen nine peaceful protesters accused of threatening the sovereignty of the Parliament; being charged with article 100 of the country’s penal code which deals with acts of terrorism– one that carries a sentence from a year to life in prison.
Reykjavik District Court announced its ruling of the case on February 16, amidst tremendous national furore, as the Reykjavik 9 waited for their verdict on “attacking” the Icelandic Parliament, Althingi, in December 2008. All nine defendants were acquitted of their initial charges. However, four were found guilty of rioting and were slapped with sentences ranging from fines to conditional prison sentences up to 4 months.
However, allegations of “politically motivated charges” to “reaction [from the government] stemming from the threat of popular uprisings” still continue to echo within the citizens of Iceland and it seems a long way to go before the dust settles on this particular case. In an exclusive, Managing Editor of The Fresh Outlook, Shayoni Sarkar, speaks to a few key people involved with the Reykjavik 9 to understand the case and the traces it leaves behind.
Charged While Enacting a Constitutional Right?
It started in October 2008, as the fall of the banking sector and currency collapse in Iceland had triggered unhappiness and the cause for protest in the hearts of the citizens. On December 8, around 30 demonstrators entered the Icelandic Parliament through the visitor’s entrance and made their way to the public benches. Nine of these protesters were arrested.
However, it was only a year later that the Reykjavik 9, as they came to be popularly known, were charged under article 100 of the penal code, a most serious charge, and one that had been used only one time before in the country’s history – in 1949, when anti-NATO protesters were charged of threatening the government.
Magnus Sveinn Helgason, historian, activist and husband of Solveig Anna Jonsdottir of the Reykjavik 9, says: “The back story is that a group of 20-30 people wanted to enter the public benches of the Parliament to essentially deliver the message that the people of Iceland were fed up with the inaction and incompetence of the political elite. Parliament had yet to address the collapse of the economy and society in any meaningful way. Aside from propping up the banks and guaranteeing 100% of domestic bank deposits, something that primarily benefited a handful of wealthy Icelanders, they simply went along as if nothing had happened. This enraged many people who were witnessing it: The economy had collapsed, the currency had collapsed, people were losing their jobs and the entire social contract was torn asunder. But the political elite appeared to be completely asleep.
“Some in the group had intended to read a declaration from the public benches – there is a long tradition of this kind of protest in Iceland, where large groups of people gather in the public gallery, and many such groups have read declarations. The Icelandic constitution states specifically that the public has a right to observe the meetings of Parliament. But, on this particular day, the parliamentary guards in the house decided that the group posed a grave danger to Althingi, closed the house and sent an emergency “attack alarm” to the police, which resulted in all available officers in the greater Reykjavik area being summoned to Parliament to defend it against what they thought was a violent attack which threatened the members of parliament and the very institution.”
He continues: “But there had never been any such attack. It was a massive overreaction, and when the dust settled and the police investigation was finished, the detective who investigated the matter felt that the whole hullabaloo had been blown out of proportion and that this had been a rather insignificant event. However, the Bureau Chief of Parliament, chief civil servant and a bureaucratic officer of the parliament, requested that the people be prosecuted to the full extent of the law, including, under article 100 of the penal code, which deals with acts of terrorism, attacks against the state and attempts to overthrow the government; the people were found guilty of violating this article it , would have resulted in a mandatory minimum sentence of one year in jail. The maximum sentence is life in prison.”.
Lara V Juliusdottir, prosecuting attorney for the state, responds: “What they [Rvk9] did was exactly what is described in article 100 of the penal code. They attacked the staff of parliament, forced their way into the parliament building and beat up the staff, some of whom got hurt. There was fighting.”
Almost 30 years ago, the current Foreign Minister of Iceland, Össur Skarphéðinsson, along with a large group of students had walked into the gallery of the Parliament and, protected by his fellow university students, recited a long speech protesting a proposed cut in student loans.
Dropping Charges Establishes “Absurdity”
Solveig Anna Jonsdottir was among the four sentenced. She, along with Steinunn Gunnlaugsdottir of the Reykjavik 9, received a fine of ISK 100,000 (£534). Andri Leo Lemarquis received a four month conditional prison sentence while Thor Sigurdsson received a 60-day conditional prison sentence, as well.
However, acquitting five and reducing the charges on the other four are not enough for the Icelandic population to let this case pass. A very serious “threat” to the freedom of expression has been made by a country that prides itself on its ideals of free speech.
Einar Steingrimsson is a mathematician who has lived and worked in Iceland, the US and Sweden, and is now a professor at the University of Strathclyde. He has written several opinion pieces and blogs in the Icelandic media about the Reykjavik 9. He says: “First of all, the court threw out the very serious charge of a threat to the “sovereignty” of the Parliament and essentially deemed it absurd; even though the court, in my opinion, otherwise used very narrow legalistic reasoning. The same happened with the charge of “breaking and entering”.I think it is fair to say that this shows that the prosecution overreacted in a very grave way, and that it therefore is guilty of a serious attack on the right to free speech, since false charges of this gravity, carrying a minimum of one year in prison, are in themselves enough to prevent people from exercising their constitutional rights. This is especially serious in light of the fact that the prosecution never had any evidence that even made it debatable whether the nine had tried to do anything other than enter the gallery of the Parliament to utter a few words.
Ms Juliusdottir, when asked what the dismissal of article 100 charges to the accused signify, said: “It is described in the court’s decision. Not to express my views, but I personally feel that the article 100 charges [against the accused] were proper.”
In spite of reduced sentences and serious charges against them dropped, Mr Steingrimsson feels that the punishment meted out to the four who were not acquitted on all charges shows “that the justice system in Iceland still gives the police and other authorities unlimited rights to violence without any regard to what sort of civil rights people are trying to exercise”.
“The four were variously convicted of “holding” and “pushing” people, as all claims of violence or harm that were previously alleged were dismissed by the court,” he says. “[They were convicted of] holding open a door that a staff member tried to close, and one of the four was convicted for biting two policemen. In that last case, the two policemen had the defendant pinned down to the floor with their body weight, and he had a hard time breathing and was in a state of panic.” Ms Juliusdottir maintains that the “violence” resorted to by the nine should be penalised, saying: “He [Andri Leo Lemarquis] was biting people. There was fighting and he bit two police officers. That is proven in the case.”
It is perhaps such adamant nature, even after a judgement has been delivered that makes Einar Steingrimsson believe that the convictions serve to “cement the attitude that the state may use force where it sees fit, but the citizens are required to show complete submission and obeisance, even when the authorities are depriving them of constitutional rights”, such as observing Parliament in session.
“[This] is what the police and staff were trying to prevent the nine from doing”.
A Compromised Prosecutor?
According Mr Steingrimsson, the prosecutor for the case was not “qualified” to handle the case. The source claims that in email exchanges with her, it has come to light, albeit after the case has been closed, that she was aware of a close relationship between her and a defendant. This would inherently compromise her position as a prosecutor, however, it is alleged that she took no action to rectify her position in the trial.
“She knew, well before the main court proceedings in January, that she is related to one of the defendants, as her father had been married to that defendant’s grandmother,” reveals Mr Steingrimsson . “According to Icelandic law, this leads to automatic disqualification. She should have announced this and withdrawn from her role as prosecutor. The judge, had he found out, would have been obliged to remove her. However, she remained silent, which clearly is against the law.”
Ms Juliusdottir defiantly responds: “I am not related. It is true that my father married one of the defendant’s grand mother but my father and mother are divorced. After their divorce, my father’s new wife had two children with him. The defendant is the son of one of those two children. I am definitely not related to them.”
She continues: “I feel drawing attention to this point is completely irrelevant. It has nothing to do with the case. The lawyers did not bring this up and this goes on to prove some ridiculous these accusations are.”
However, Mr Steingrimsson believes that the defendants, although aware of this, chose not to push it.
“They didn’t want the case to be pushed back to the starting point, which is what would have happened with a new prosecutor.”
Increasing “Paranoia” Within the Political Elite
Not just suspicions over the motives of the prosecutor, it is widely believed that the trial was “politically motivated”. This political motivation is alleged to have been fed off by “paranoia”, a looming sentiment within the elite, who were alleged to be “scared” of the demonstrators and their calls for accountability. The charges that the Reykjavik 9 had faced was deemed “absurd” by most. Einar Steingrimsson had earlier told The Fresh Outlook: “I am not aware of anybody, even among those who feel that the protesters did something wrong, who has tried to justify prosecuting the Rvk9 on these grounds – that is, for having threatened the “sovereignty” of the Parliament.
“One can speculate about paranoia among those responsible for the charge, namely the Speaker of the Parliament, its administrative chief, and the prosecutor. The prosecutor and the Chair are political allies and personal acquaintances, and the prosecutor, in fact, has strong ties to the Parliament, since she served as a substitute MP for a few years twenty years ago, in addition to being the current chairman of the board of the Central Bank, elected by Parliament. In many people’s opinion, this should disqualify her as a prosecutor here, since Parliament is, in part, a party to the case. The judge, however, dismissed that objection when it was raised by the defendants.”
And the speculations of “paranoia” and “political motive” behind the charges don’t seem unfounded for most, especially those deeply entrenched in the case. Magnus Helgason says: “It has emerged that the bureau chief was behind the charges, but it is difficult to believe that he was acting alone, and that the decision was not made in consultation with or on the behest of the office of the speaker of parliament. The charges are obviously political, and it is clear the highest levels of the bureaucracy and political elite wanted to send a clear message to protesters. They understood that the corrupt world of nepotism, good-old boys networks and back-room deals, built up over decades of conservative rule had collapsed as the financial bubble popped, and that the people wanted change. Those who were invested in the corrupt old order were understandably afraid and shocked .”
Ms Juliusdottir defends: “I am surprised by these accusations from their very start! In my mind there has been no political pressure towards this case, either to direct it or to bring it up.”
Whether the claims of “political motivation” can be validated or not, there is widespread opinion that the decision handed down by the District Court was hardly a victory. Mr Helgason, who was present during the verdict, recounts: “The court ruling was strangely anti-climactic. The judge read the ruling fast while mumbling and those present did not even fully realize that he was reading the ruling. Then he rushed off. It was very surreal.”
“On the surface it might appear as a victory – that the nine are all found innocent of the most serious charges, and that only four are sentenced for what are, for the most part, very innocent charges. However, this is at best a partial victory. The court found it necessary to sentence some of the accused of some offences, rather than simply dismiss the entire case. This seems to be so that the prosecution can save face and does not need to admit that its case was, at the core, built on sand.”
Article 100 – Used After 50 years
Inspite of the serious charges of article 100 being dropped, it does not seem to have curbed sentiments against the government for not undertaking appropriate action during the financial storm of 2008. If nothing, the Reykjavik 9 case seems to have fuelled such sentiments. Such a serious charge against peaceful protesters undertaking an action guaranteed by their constitution has been met with stern condemnation from the masses.
Mr Steingrimsson says: “One significant difference is that in 1949 [when article 100 was used to charge] the proposed participation by Iceland in NATO polarized the nation, which would last for decades to come, whereas in 2008-9, people of all political persuasions were thoroughly dismayed and disgusted by the entire political establishment.
Mr Helgason explains: “Another difference is that in 1949, the government had organized, deputized and armed with batons, a group of young conservatives who assisted the police in dispersing the crowd. The crowd reacted by throwing cobblestones. Some of the protesters were later convicted under the article 100 for “attacking parliament” as this was interpreted as an attack with a deadly weapon: The protesters had taken up arms against the Parliament and its defenders.”
Mr Steingrimsson feels that this makes for an important difference between the two cases: “As one of the defence lawyers in the case of the Rvk9 pointed out, not only did the Rvk9 not act violently, they were not armed and carried nothing that could be construed as a weapon”.
Many have also found it strange that the events of December 8th are by no means the only serious confrontation of the protests during the winter of 2008-9. It angered the people further when it came to light that the December 8 protests of the Reykjavik 9 was a protest on a much smaller level as compared to many more. “For example, on November 22 2008, a group of several hundred protesters had gathered in front of the headquarters of the Reykjavik Police,” recounts Mr Helgason . “A protester, who during one of the large mass demonstrations the week before, hoisted the flag of “Bonus” a discount grocery stores on the flagpole of Althingi. Bonus is owned by Jón Ásgeir Jóhannesson, one of the most infamous corporate “vikings.” This protester was not arrested for the act of hoisting this flag, as the police could not prove that he had hoisted the flag because the crowd had helped him get away. He was however arrested for not paying an unrelated fine, but nonetheless, people saw it as a retribution for the flag incidence He later won a court ruling court ruling that proved that his arrest had been illegal, further strengthening the suspicion that this was an act of retribution.”
Further, he explains that the demonstration in front of the police station “got very agitated” and a part of the group “managed tobreak through the front doors of the station”. The police were able to gain control of the situation, but nobody was arrested.
“The most significant protests took place during January 19-21, 2009,” explains Mr Steingrimsson. “They started when Parliament reconvened after the winter break, with people assembling outside the parliament building when the MPs entered. This then continued throughout the day, and the following night, and didn’t stop until it became clear that the government would resign. In fact, the centre of Reykjavik was taken over by protesters, who lit bonfires that were kept alive throughout.”
“Although several people were arrested during the protests in January, no charges [were made against these protesters] with a crime, which makes the case of Rvk9 stand out in even starker contrast, because it’s become abundantly clear that their protest was very peaceful in the sense that they did not resort to any violence, whereas there were many other situations where violence, even if minor, broke out, without anybody being charged.”
A spokesperson from the Althingi refused comment, stating: “People are still waiting to see if there will be an appeal. The Speaker at the time  and his successors have refrained comment on this situation. The latest news is that the defendants’ lawyers are waiting to judge whether they would appeal to the Supreme Court.”
Rvk9 Verdict Clouds ‘New Iceland’
After the financial collapse in Iceland, there has been sufficient debate about the need for a ‘New Iceland’; one free from corruption and “incompetence” that caused the collapse.
“Sadly, apart from the scathing, but extremely thorough and convincing report of the parliamentary commission charged with investigating the causes of the crash, not much has changed for the better in Icelandic government and business dealings,” Mr Steingrimsson explains regretfully. “In particular, we can see with the case of the Rvk9, the ugly side of power. This brings back memories of the deeply divisive and oppressive political climate during much of the latter half of the last century.”
He believes that to many people, this is one more sign that “there will be no ‘New Iceland’”. “Although the state, through the prosecutor, had its most outrageous charges thrown out, it [has] still succeeded in what seems to have been the goal; namely to show the citizens that they can’t exercise with impunity the rights they are supposedly accorded in the constitution,” states Mr Steingrimsson
“It is hard to say whether the general public will be engaged in this in the future, but it is clear that many of those who have been most vocal in voicing their demands, and hopes, for a “New Iceland” have seen them dashed by how the establishment closes ranks against those who want to see substantial change in how the country is run by cliques of power and money. This is just one of many signs that the old elite’s grip on power and money is not loosening at all, but rather being fiercely defended.”
However, Ms Juliusdottir disagrees: “Of course I don’t think that this case could dampen the country’s future. However, I do think that the publicity of the case has been out of proportion. People were angry and were attacking the parliament building. This needs to go to the courts to be tried.”
Disagreeing that the Reykjavik 9 have many supporters, she maintains that the “main reason” that the population were “upset” was because the Reykjavik 9 case “was the first to be tried after the fall of the banks”.
“People were angry that this case went the furthest. They were waiting for bigger cases to appear in court but the process is lengthy and many have had to wait. I feel that with the people, I feel their anger.”
It’s not simply lengthy waiting periods that have troubled the people of Iceland, especially the nine accused. It needs to be brought to light that those fined and sentenced to suspended jail terms have to pay for a large amount of their own defence, if not all. This roughly translates into almost two months of pay for each.
“We are not talking about people with high paying jobs at investment banks, but students and ordinary people working low paying jobs,” explains Magnus Helgason. “Furthermore, the time that has gone into attending drawn out court hearings; all of the accused have had to spend countless hours defending themselves in court and the media , time that they could then not spend on other things, be it their families or on other work.”
At the same time, it is interesting to note that the trial of the Reykjavik 9 has served to “energize” Icelandic activists and “engage very diverse groups”. “There has formed a large, but loosely organized and connected support group around the Rvk9, encompassing people from very different backgrounds,” say Mr Helgason “This group would never have formed had it not been for the prosecution”
Mr Steingrimsson reaffirms, “In the beginning, the Rvk9 saw little sympathy, and there was not much concern among the general public. This changed, slowly but surely, throughout the process, with the government steadily losing ground as it became clear how absurd the charges were, and how the Speaker, Bureau Chief and even the prosecutor lied outright about their part in the case.”
“The head of the Social Democratic Alliance had famously remarked that those unhappy with the government were “not the people”. But gradually it has dawned on the government that they could not hang onto power and that the protests were not going away,” concludes Mr Steingrimsson.
The Reykjavik 9 have drawn intense national media coverage. Unfortunately, it didn’t draw the same amount of coverage outside of the country and many feel that the lack of reportage on this case perpetrated the trial. However, it is hoped that future attempts against constitutional rights, not just in Iceland but elsewhere, should receive the importance that it deserves, in order to call governments to accountability.
For more details, please visit: www.rvk9.org/in-english/