May 11 2011

Reykjavík Nine: What Did We Learn?

By Magnús Sveinn Helgason

By mid March, the case against the Reykjavík Nine (who had been accused of conspiracy to attack Alþingi with the intent of compromising its “independence and sanctity”) finally came to a close when the state prosecutor decided not to appeal the Reykjavík district court ruling in the case. The nine had been acquitted of all the major charges of the prosecution.

Not for lack of evidence or because the nine were able to slip through legal loopholes. No, the court found that there was absolutely no evidence to support the case of the prosecution; that there was absolutely nothing that indicated the group had ever intended to do anything but exercise its constitutional right to protest peacefully in a public space. The court did, however, find four protesters guilty of relatively minor offences: disobeying police orders and obstructing public officials performing their duties.

So, why are Icelandic activists and campaigners for civil liberties not jumping with joy? For one, the verdict verifies a dangerous precedent the courts appear to follow, namely that protesters must obey police orders, no matter how unjustified they may seem.

The prosecution failed to produce any evidence to justify the decisions of the guards or police to contain and eject the protesters—which means that guards and police violated the protesters’ constitutional rights. Instead, four protesters were convicted of not submitting to arbitrary police orders.

The ruling also proves that the authorities can, with impunity, drag protesters to court on flimsy charges and keep them captive in the legal system for months.

Any sensible person who looked at the case saw that there was no connection between the charges and the evidence. And it is hard to believe that the prosecution did not realise it had no case. So, why did the prosecution go forward if it had no evidence?

Well, because the prosecutor was following political orders. It has been revealed that the decision to prosecute under the 100th paragraph was only taken after someone from the offices of the Speaker of Parliament and the bureau Chief of Parliament had intervened. The intent of the intervention was either to have innocent people thrown in jail for protesting, or to have them dragged through the justice system to teach them a lesson.

Either way, one would think Alþingi and its chief officers owe the Reykjavík Nine an apology. But, no. Its officials continue to aggressively push the idea that the Reykjavík Nine are a bunch of dangerous violent criminals.

Case in point: On February 28 , shortly after the verdict in the case was handed down, Parliamentary chief of staff Karl M. Kristjánsson published an op-ed in newspaper Fréttablaðið, wherein he recycled and exaggerated every charge that the courts had just dismissed. In the missive, Karl stated as a proven fact that the nine had conspired to “attack Parliament” and that they had “violently attacked parliamentary guards”. He then complained that the media had been too favourable to the nine, especially Icelandic State TV, which he claimed had edited the footage from the security cameras, thus distorting the picture of what “really” happened (in fact: during the trial it was revealed that parliamentary officials had deleted most of the footage before handing it over to the police) Karl then expressed his outrage that these criminals were owed an apology from parliament:

“It seems that many responsible commentators want the parliamentary guards to apologise for having been beaten up.”

This is interesting. Especially the part about parliamentary guards having been “beaten up”. There was absolutely nobody beaten up! The Reykjavík district court found:

“There is no indication that the accused ever threatened either police or parliamentary guards with violence.”

And:

“As previously stated, there is no evidence whatsoever, that the accused ever intended to do anything but reach the public gallery to protest the social and political conditions at the time. It is impossible to see how their actions could be construed as having been aimed at forcefully subverting the will of parliament, or to see them as an attack which threatened parliament’s independence and sanctity.”

So. Let’s recap. The police and other state officials can forcefully deny people their constitutional rights to protest in public places—and then have people sentenced in a court of law for disobeying these unjust orders. The state can level outrageous charges against protesters to keep them captive in the legal system.

The office of the speaker of Parliament can instruct the state prosecution to press the most serious charges available in the book against innocent people, then proceed to delete relevant evidence and—even after a court has dismissed all charges of attack and violence—the top civil servants of parliament will continue to push the false charges in the media.

The 17th century Swedish statesman Axel Oxenstierna was the greatest political mind of his time. He once remarked that one should not underestimate the lack of wisdom with which the world is ruled. I would add that neither should one underestimate the shameless, brazen arrogance and cynicism of its rulers.

Originally published in The Reykjavík Grapevine.

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