Feb 24 2011

The Reykjavik 9 and a New Era in the Struggle Against Repression

By Tord Björk

The Social Forum Journey

Is there a possibility that we can see a new era in the struggle against repression? While repression according to many reports are growing in Europe and the world with widening social gaps there are also some changes in the way repression is organized and counteracted. Rightly addressed the situation gives new possibilities for solidarity and uniting movements that hitherto were kept separate thus building a base for democratizing society.

The 18th of January a trial starts in Reykjavik against 9 activists accused of crimes against a law protecting the parliament. The crimes can give maximum life sentences which on Iceland in practice is 16 years in prison. At minimum this crime will give 1 year in prison. In reaction to the trial 705 persons have claimed guilty to the same act. As Iceland is a small country with 320 000 inhabitants this means that if the same mass protest would occur in Germany 200 000 people would have signed a statement that they also deserve to be put to trial threatened by at least one year or a life sentence.

The scale of this mass protest should not be underestimated, nor the political situation in which it takes place. It can tell us something about the nature of the present parliamentarian system, the relation to economy and the way to organize movements and solidarity today. The action inside the parliament took place at the beginning of popular protests on Iceland against the economic crisis. Every week there were the so called casserole actions were at most 8 000 people participated. The police used tear gas against the protesters for the first time since 1949 when the Icelandic politicians allowed the US to establish a military base on Iceland and then the country joined NATO. On 8th of December 2008 some 30 people went to the parliament in an attempt to make an action on the balcony. The parliamentary guards and one policemen on duty stopped them but two were able to get up to the balcony making a statement in a hurry that they did not trust the parliament saying quickly: “Get the fuck out! This house no longer serves its purpose!”

In a very well documented brochure about the case and the political and economic situation on Iceland made by a Icelandic solidarity committee with the Reykjavik 9 the content of the shouting is commented laconically: ”Even those who might have disagreed at the time, have since been forced to concede that this analysis was quite correct. Forty days later, in January 2009, mass protests succeeded in ousting the right-wing Social Democratic-Conservative government and forcing a new election. That was the first time in Icelandic history that public protests actually achieving something as dramatic”.

During the action the police arrested some of the people in the hallway and outside the building with some minor scuffles and nothing more dramatic happened. The defendants have been accused of causing harm to one guard in the back but the security cameras shows that it was another guard who was clumsily shoving demonstrators around who caused the problem so the charge was dropped. No violent attempt can be shown – on the video cameras not even one raised fist can be seen. The action was a peaceful protest.

The attempt at criminalizing a peaceful protest comes timely as many parts of Europe and the world are hit by an economic crisis while those countries that seem to escape from problems have postponed the real contradictions by in practice putting all tax payers money into a guarantee for bankers to keep on speculating. It is in the interest of every undemocratic government that want to suppress questioning of their way of handling the economic crisis to criminalize and divide any opposition instead of allowing protests to politicize questions.

The economic crisis was most dramatic on Iceland and so were the way of protesting. It built on a modern combination of mass participation and smaller activists circles formulating more forward looking demands while the different strands of the movement both had the capacity of arguing and organizing emotional activities combining what is necessary to win a struggle at two times. First by ousting the parliament and then by protesting against a bad deal made by the new left wing government enabling somewhat better conditions for Iceland.

On the other hand if the repression becomes to dramatically in conflict with juridical norms and common sense the legitimacy not only of the Icelandic political system but also of all similar European states will be in danger. This we have already seen in the case of the climate summit protests were the political parties and media competed with each other to to stamp all protests and especially those at the UN conference building as violent causing the mass arrest of two thousand innocent people and a trial against preventively arrested spokes persons of Climate Justice Alliance. The trials turned out into tragicomic farce until the last trial resulting in 4 months prison for spokespersons arrested at the spot for the action. But the struggle is not necessarily over and the result all in all so far is a loss of legitimacy for the state. The climate summit case can be used to step up struggle against repression if different strands of the movement find ways to use the loss of legitimacy caused by the court decision that the mass arrests were illegal and the preventive arrests were aquitted.

In the Icelandic case the spiral downwards for the political system is much worse and the case is developing into the end of all basis for the legitimacy of the present political system and its capacity to maintain trust in the country and among people. In short the combination of the most dramatic economic crisis with a small society lacking possibility to professionalize and formalize a conflict means that the very basis of common sense necessary for every society and its relations with others is rapidly brought to the forefront by the way different actors relate to the trial. The trial is thus turning into a story possible to understand for everyone and thus it becomes a night mare for all the professionals trying the administrate society from privileged positions in the courts, parliament, mass media or business or other organizational head quarters. A modern Icelandic Saga is developing in front of our eyes and so far they are doing nothing more than make the story better for every turn of events, in such a speed that hopefully a tragic outcome for the accused can be avoided.

Maximum in total 144 years against maximum 2 years

There are of course the more obvious contradictions between how those who caused and made profit out of the crisis and those that protested to stop it are treated in the courts. The tragedy caused to many that had to pay for the profits made by the few have so far not resulted in one single trial. A special commission have been set up by the parliament and finally it has been decided to press charges to only one public official Geir Haarde, Iceland’s prime minister before and during the collapse, for incompetence and negligence in public Office. If found guilty, the maximum sentence Haarde faces is two years jail. Bankers might be charged later.

A country that has caused severe damage not only to its own citizens but also to many foreigners by allowing its parliament to elect public officials that allowed the bank system to run wild has to watch out. It is not clever if it threatens those that started stopping the corrupt economic system which the politicians allowed or even worse promoted with in total 144 years in prison at maximum and minimum 16 years while one the side of those responsible for allowing the damage in total maximum 2 years in prison is asked for. Such a country is a shame to itself and the world.

So the politicians have built a trap to themselves, if they continue as they have done so far insisting on the the need to see that what the activists did as a severe threat they will come in conflict with how Iceland is seen as a nation not taking its responsibility for the economic damage they have caused severely while instead blaming the victim, those wanting to stop the damage. If they give in they will get the opposite problems showing that they cannot be trusted as they have been pushing the wrong arguments to long. In a domestic situation this might be possible to handle but in the present economic crisis what happens on Iceland has international implications both on the economic field as well as the field of political culture and repression. As Iceland is not scrutinized regularly abroad the politicians can get away for a long time as if their acts are of no great concerns but when they become more obvious to the rest of the world which will happen during the trial then the situation will rapidly change. This makes the situation out of control and who will be able to tell the best story then have the chance to get support.

Defendant not allowed to participate in the hearing

Then we have the judicial system. This issue places Iceland outside any civilized country. The judge cannot even see to that defendants are allowed to participate in the hearing against themselves as the police without the judge interfering stopped them from participating one time and continue to make problems for them to enter the hearing. The defense lawyer Aðalsteinsson has pointed at this stating the severe consequences for the trial. The judge can not be considered impartial – by handing all authority in the case to the police, by not attempting to keep the police in line, by not reacting to incidents where the police stopped defendants from entering the courtroom and by not taking any measure to keeping it from happening again the judge has shown that he considers the defendants dangerous and violent criminals who do not deserve a fair hearing in an open court of law. Aðalsteinsson has made repeated formal complaints which the judge has refused to hear – he has also appealed these to the supreme court, which has similarly dismissed them.

Media full of lies about non-existing violence

The media have also been mass producing stories about violence and then refusing to tell the truth when they were exposed as lies. The police and guards claimed that the demonstrators were violent and the media was full of such stories causing a climate around the trial which asks for strong verdicts. The problem was that the claims were false from the very beginning. The violence that the guard accused the demonstrators for was caused by themselves which could be seen on the video tapes from the parliament and the demonstrators were not intenting any violence. These facts were silenced in the media as the Icelandic massmedia have lost its interest in spreading news and instead chose to spread false rumours. Journalist on Iceland are as much a joke as the professionals in the juridical system.

A political system dismantling itself

A key to the modern state is the hierarchic order of those organisations that are supposed to be responsible for its functioning like political parties or the government or the secretariat of the speaker of the parliament. The head of an organization is responsible for what the organization does, that is self evident and if not so, then the whole idea of the present political system dismantles itself. There are of course other responsible models for organizing but also in another more horizontal system there is a clear responsibility shared and if not so there is no horizontal organisation either. Above all whether we have a formal hierarchic democratic order or an informal horizontal democratic order, in both cases there has to be respect for democracy as the overarching value meaning that in principle all men are equal and thus those acting in any democratic order are doing this to serve, not to be above the people. On Iceland that by some measures can be seen as having among the longest lasting democratic traditions on earth with the parliament Alþingi that have been existing for a thousand year putting the basis of the democratic order in jeopardy is a serious matter. This can be caused from the outside, but also from the inside.

The highest democratic post in Iceland, the speaker of the parliament Ásta Ragnheiður have caused a rupture in the core of the heart of formal democracy in Iceland. She claims on the one hand that she and the parliament have nothing to do with the trial. This in response to the petition made by 705 people claiming that there is something wrong when they have done the same thing inside or outside the parliament as those accused but on other dates and then only nine are selected as scapegoats. Ragnheiður gives the general answer that should be given by a speaker of parliament in any country with division of power between the judicial system and the political. There are only some problems. The judicial system did not make anything out of the action were the nine participated. It was first when the general secretary of the parliament told them to do so and even pointed at what paragraph to chose including the one with extreme penalties of minimum 1 year in prison that the prosecutor started to open the case.

But this is not the only way Ragnheiður causes problem to herself and the parliament. She is also among those that have accused the defendants for many things. In response to a parliamentary inquiry, she stated that the Reykjavík Nine, and the other protesters who entered the house of parliament that day had “forced their way into the house of parliament,” that they “overpowered” staff and guards and generally behaved in a “violent” and “threatening” manner. According to her, it was “obvious” that the group had “no compunction about using force to get into contact with members of parliament.” She stated further that this was caught on the surveillance camera giving her statement a more sense of objectiveness.

The problem here are twofold. On the one hand she states mainly things she has not seen, or at least at the occasion when she made the statement could not be controlled by others as the surveillances tapes not yet were public. Once they became public it was clear that the kind of claims made by her and many others were false. Both our judicial system and the bible claims you should not bear false witness against your neighbour. By using her powerful position as speaker of the parliament interpreting the surveillance tapes in such a distorting manner due to inability to judge them properly or listening to others false version she has dishonoured her post as Speaker of the parliament and given a view from the side of the organisations that supposedly have been under such heavy attack according to the general secretary that at least one year in prison should be the punishment, which with the false statement about what happened made by the speaker becomes more underpinned on loose ground.

Ragnheiður also stressed that the protesters had entered Alþingi through “the back door.” This especially interesting as it puts in question whether the speaker of parliament respects the people she represents and if she bear false witness also on this point. From the perspective of the MPs the notion back door is understandable, as they can use what they call the front door. The problem here is that the only way citizens can enter the parliamentary building is through what the MPs call the back door but for the people electing the parliament is the only front door. By using the word back door about the only door that those the MPs are supposed to serve can enter also in public addressing the people shows disrespect. Furthermore the concept back door have the general connotation that one goes there to sneak in rather than going proudly through the public entrance. The way the Speaker of the parliament uses the term back door shows disrespect for the public and the serving role of the parliament as well as intended or unwillingly questioning in a false way the openness in the way the demonstrators entered the building.

Thus have the speaker of the parliament put herself and her institution in a downward spiral going against its own principles, the bible and the trust in democracy serving the people. As there are so many contradictions her the way out is problematic without a clear commitment to the basic principles of maintaining a society, tell the truth.

To make it simple she could say: ”It is of importance that the parliament is separate from the judicial system and this is why I am correct when I do not accept an appeal about the courts made to me or the parliament. But as  the main responsible for the parliament I should have known that it is we ourselves that have broken against this principle and I shall immediately see to that we apologize for this to restore the trust in our democratic system. As this already has caused a possibility for damage to the judicial system by making people unequal to the law and those committing the same crime or worse at other occasions get free while those making the action on December 8 are targeted as the only ones to be put on trial I can only state that I recognize this as an unwanted problem possibly due to our interference against our democratic principles.

In general I also want to add that this is of utmost importance to Iceland as a small country. There are the risk in such a country that politicians or others might influence the judicial system in an informal way which is a threat to the integrity of the judicial system and thus to democracy. This makes it so more important to avoid the kind of formal request made by functionaries of the parliament to the prosecutor which now happened. We cannot allow this in the future as it makes the trust uncertain in our capacity to keep not only the judicial and political system separate but also other systems as the economical.

Concerning my statement in the parliament I claim that I felt threatened during the action. But the facts about acts made by the demonstrators as violent with reference to the surveillance tape were wrong. It was bad that I in this way was spreading false witnesses about other people and I have no excuse for this. As politicians we were and are still under big stress but so were also others in Iceland and those effected abroad. I felt threatened at the time of the action which might have carried me away when I heard about what the surveillance tape showed. It is of importance to differ between what you feel and how you act. This is precisely what we demand from people in a democracy when they protest. It is the content which should be important and if necessary sharp, not the way you act. When I allowed my feelings to give a false view on how the demonstrators acted I lacked the disciple which I demand from those protesting against the parliament. To regain the needed respect for each other in a democracy I see it as important to explain to each other why we act as we do and I am willing to sit down and discuss this matters with all concerned to rebuilt trust. I will also propose a change of the use of the word back door to public entrance.”


Other politicians are also deeply involved making the down ward spiral a strong possibility. It is only a minority in the social democratic and redgreen party that have opposed the kind of version of what happened that the Speaker of the parliament presented. What politicians and media alike is claiming is that nothing of this magnitude ever happened before in Iceland except for the last and then the only time when the law was used in 1949 four years after Iceland was liberated after Danish rule against those protesting at the parliament against membership in NATO.

But the same kind of action as that made by the Reykjavik 9 and their fellow demonstrators took place in 1976 inside the parliament through the same entrance as this time. People then were storming the bench for visitors and making a human shield around one person who read a statement protesting against a change in students loan to the assembled and thus disrupted MPs. They refused the orders of both guards and policemen resulting in some minor scuffles. The student reading the speech became a leading social democratic politician and is today foreign minister. In January 1993 the same thing happened again, this time against membership of EU.

By claiming that nothing similar ever happened in Iceland and this makes the extreme possible punishment necessary and a hard verdict understandable of no concern for those not understanding this uniqueness in the Icelandic tradition many politicians runs into a problem. The actions 1976 and 1993 are documented and for an outside observer fully possible to compare. As the surveillance cameras has been looked at and the stories told about violence by many have been proven to be false the situation is now drastically changed. The level of violence during the action is not existing or so low that there is no way to present to outsiders that the actions 1976 and 1993 not are similar. It is only compared to the false rumours about the action 2008 that there are some difference.

The problem here also becomes twofold. On the one hand many politicians will get the same problem as the speaker of the parliament as their story about earlier actions are not correct. They can as the speaker is advised by me to do openly state that they were mistaken or the modern saga gets one more chapter to present to the world about lying and telling the truth o Iceland. But there is also the problem of the destruction of trust on each other if the only way to stand up for truth today is that what happened by chance got caught on a video camera. A society needs to be built on trusting each other. The kind of very strong statement about the lack of any similarity with what happened now with what happened earlier or the use of violence by the Reykjavik 9 when it was not the case becomes a way were the whole basis for our society is cracking. Already in the first case it is a problem when the guards and the police have lost so much control of their ability to observe what happens that they claim that the demonstrators is causing the violence when it actually is one in their own ranks who in spite of being a professional is using so much excessive force that he hurts his colleague. When many starts to believe this story and then the video shows that it is not correct this puts in question not only the version from the police and guards this time but also when the camera is not there. If they cannot make a correct observation when the camera is on, what are their inability when it is not there. But in the case of the politicians claiming that what happened earlier is totally different the case is worth. They have not been in the middle of the confrontation which sometimes can be an excuse for the police and guards making it harder to make an unbiased description. When they build their view on totally difference between earlier actions and now on the false witnesses and not the new version after the videos became public they can maybe survive this when the media do not present the new facts to the Icelandic public but they cannot tell the rest of the world their view as observers from the outside tend to look at facts.

Nordic law 1243: Truth! 2011: Power?

Iceland has the same base as other Nordic countries were the law is considered by people in common as important to follow and at the same time is supposed to be understandable and built on a higher value. This higher value was formulated already in 1243 in the Code of Jutland, a province in Denmark. This law is still used in juridical argumentation and known by people in common in Denmark. Iceland is building on the very same tradition. The law has two essential parts. The first being ”By law shall the land be built.”. Here comes the strong arguments for extreme punishment against anyone breaking the peace in the parliament which was also a reason for the very strong reaction among many Danish organizations against protesting against the UN conference by any non-violent action at the conference centre during the climate summit COP15. The second is equally important – ” There is no law to follow as good as truth”.

The speaker of the parliament and many other politicians have completely lost this second tier underpinning both the judicial system and the whole society. By neglecting 750 years of traditions that have kept the Nordic societies together they are on the brink of destroying the core of society which is the trust built when telling truth to each other.

The upward spiral

There is also an upward spiral, a hopeful one were we all can participate. The good spiral of telling the truth and acting together in solidarity. The key here is presence, being by the side of the accused at the hearings and then organizing and action telling the truth that also you and other made the same act. Documenting all aspects and make it know to the world. I have seldom seen such a well documented and well organized solidarity campaign as the one organized in Iceland. The repression of the solidarity have caused the upward spiral to get even stronger. When the police did not allow interested to come into the room of the hearing this caused only more protests. When media first told about the use of violence and then not about the video showing this was not true, this became one more argument for continuing the fight. Organizing that mix of activities necessary for an upward movement, concerts outside the parliament, art exhibitions, own media, contacts with other movements and supporting the families that have been put under pressure by the accusations of heavy crimes.

Here everyone outside Iceland also can contribute. Iceland is a small country dependent on the rest of the world. But it is important in the development of the economic crisis and the only country in Europe were the people have been able to change government after strong protests. When the politicians, media and courts try to create extreme punishment for some activists it is not only an attempt at criminalizing a whole Icelandic movement. It is also an attack en every one questioning the present economic model were the Icelandic movement have showed us all that there are possibilities to win some victories in this fight.

They need our support because their struggle is ours. You can find ways to do something on the link below to Icelandic websites with information in English. Actions at Icelandic embassies or spreading information about the trial are welcome as well as any other support. Below you also find extract of the solidarity statement made by the Icelandic environmental movement Saving Iceland, one of the strongest supporters of the Reykjavik 9.

The author is active in friends of the Earth, Sweden

Follow the protests on the Reykjavik 9 website:. http://www.rvk9.org

See also Saving Iceland. http://www.savingiceland.org/tag/rvk9

Read the well documented »Support the Reykjavík Nine Brochure« (PDF). http://www.savingiceland.org/2010/10/support-the-reykjavik-nine-brochure/

Read the article »Attacks On Alþingi Are Of No Concern To Alþingi« at The Reykjavik Grapevine. http://www.grapevine.is/Features/ReadArticle/Articles-Attacks-On-Althingi-Are-Of-No-Concern-To-Althingi


Sections of a statement by Saving Iceland:

A Spade is a Spade, Repression is Repression

Environmental network Saving Iceland declares full solidarity with the Reykjavik Nine defendants (RVK9), who face between one and sixteen years in prison for exercising their democratic right to peacefully protest against a disgraced parliament, on 8 December 2008.

These nine people have been picked out of the thousands whose protests brought down the previous government, whose corruption and ineptitude was responsible for the historical crisis Icelandic society is still being torn up by. This same government has now been confirmed by the Special Investigation Committee report (SIC – an apt acronym) as instrumental in the abuse that lead to the complete crash of the Icelandic economy; and as a major force in the severe corruption, democracy deficit and ethical crisis which have since emerged as the underlying reasons for the total failure of Icelandic democracy.

Criminalizing political opponents, even those who use non-violent civil disobedience, is an old diversion tactic used by states worldwide. This act of political repression is in glaring contradiction to the sanctimonious declarations of ‘shouldering responsibility’ and ‘taking heed of lessons’ paid by the parties responsible for the crisis. …

The case against the RVK9 is a blatant diversion tactic executed by an utterly irresponsible power community in complete denial of the disgraceful scenario that Icelandic democracy has found itself in. We are witnessing a discredited establishment attempting to scapegoat people for protesting against a parliament that has been universally condemned as corrupt, inept and disqualified. Saving Iceland questions whether the Icelandic State will reclaim any respect for its institutions, particularly by destroying the lives of these nine individuals and their families?

The severe irregularities in Icelandic society are no news to the Saving Iceland network. When Icelandic society was in the grip of the greed frenzy that lead to the collapse, we were among the very few who stepped forward to expose and challenge these developments. As a result we experienced both vilification by the Icelandic corporate media and political persecution by the Icelandic courts and police.

The present ‘left wing’ government is not only continuing the culture of political repression, but is actually significantly increasing it. Now the state intends to take revenge with hefty prison sentences. This is in retaliation for what really only amounts to a benign act of non-violent civil disobedience. The underlying justification of this repression is that of a deterrent against further civil disobedience.

Saving Iceland would like to call the urgent attention of international human rights and civil liberties NGOs to the attack on the legislated rights of protesters in Iceland. These rights are both constitutionally and internationally legislated.


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