Jun 23 2011
The Reykjavík One: The Trials and Tribulations of Geir H. Haarde
By Snorri Páll Jónsson Úlfhildarson
Originally published in The Reykjavík Grapevine
A little more than a year ago, several Icelandic bankers were arrested and kept in custody in relation to the Special Prosecutor’s investigation into the 2008 economic collapse, its antecedents and causes. Appearing in political TV talk show Silfur Egils shortly afterwards, French-Norwegian magistrate Eva Joly, who at that time served as the Prosecutor’s special assistant, talked about how society does not expect—and has problems to deal with—politically and economically powerful people being arrested, interrogated and possibly sentenced.
Eva Joly was right. And the reason? Habit. Whether a journalist, police officer, lawyer, judge or a powerless citizen, in a civilised society based on dualistic ideas of good and evil, one is most likely unable to recognise well-dressed and eloquent people—with possessions and power in their pockets—as anything other than good. During the interview, Eva compared those people with drug users and dealers that are brought to court, who generally are immediately seen by society as criminals deserving to face “justice”. Another rightful comparison would be political dissidents.
JURIDICAL MILESTONE OR POLITICAL WITCH-HUNT?
In September of last year, the majority of Alþingi (Icelandic parliament) decided to charge former Prime Minister Geir H. Haarde for negligence and mismanagement during the prelude to the 2008 economic collapse. After heavy parliamentary debate on the options to charge either four former ministers, a couple of them or none, the decision, based on the renowned Special Investigation Commission report, was to charge Haarde alone. Crying “political witch-hunt!”, was his and his comrades’ first reaction, particularly ironic as he himself was one of the main advocates for the investigation leading to this decision.
On June 6, the case was filed in front of Landsdómur, the national high court that now assembles for the first time in Iceland’s history. While some consider it a juridical milestone, Geir and his supporters stated that the filing marked the beginning of “Iceland’s first political trial”. Regardless of one’s opinion about the legitimacy of this particular case, it is impossible to overlook the concentrated attempt, embraced in such a statement, to openly deny not only the juridical system’s political nature but also the fact of how controversial state policies in Iceland—concerning economic, energy and refugee issues, to name a few—have evoked such fierce opposition that the state’s only answer has been to arrest and accuse, threatening people with up to a lifetime in prison.
MORE EQUAL THAN OTHERS
It is remarkably interesting to look at the rhetoric surrounding Geir Haarde’s case in comparison with other court cases. On one hand Geir is a “criminal”, on the other a victim of “political persecution”. The latter definition comes from a team of supporters who up until now have not seen a great deal of reasons to criticise the status quo’s greatest watchmen, the courts. But now, as their teammate has got caught in the unimaginable, they have shown a completely different side in their criticism towards the system.
Let’s be clear from the start: there is a slight difference as Geir’s case takes place in front of a particularly rare set of judges whereas all other defendants face their fortune in front of the standard courts. At the same time, Landsdómur is the only platform where the authorities can be brought in front of the court of law, counterbalancing the aforementioned difference. Additionally, the rhetoric around Geir’s case is not limited to it alone but was also predominant during the above-mentioned bankers’ arrests one year ago. At that point lawyers, judges, politicians and media editors raised their voices, highlighting what in theory is considered to be the maxim of the constitutional state: that everyone is innocent until proven guilty.
And now, when Haarde’s case has commenced, we get to hear the same clichés all over again. How his reputation has been damaged and his family and friends been affected by the publicity surrounding his trial. That Iceland’s parliament has been misused for a political assault. That the accusations are built on sand, which still does not allow us to underestimate the seriousness of being accused in the first place, regardless of the case’s final outcome. That the law articles concerning Landsdómur are outdated. How hard and expensive it is for a defendant to defend himself against the prosecution—an institution with a bunch of paid workers, and now even an entire website!
Yeah, yeah—this might all be true. But when compared with the discourse surrounding the majority of court cases, where the charges come from above and head hierarchically down the social staircase, the fuss around Geir’s case reveals itself as a simple tragicomedy. If one believes that some sort of a universal concept of justice exists, and that a particular institution of politically hired judges is able to reasonably execute this justice, the above-listed arguments must apply to all defendants.
But they don’t.
This we know e.g. from recent cases against political dissidents where charges have been in complete contravention of the cases’ evidence, investigations, the laws and Iceland’s constitution. During one of these cases, against the so-called ‘Reykjavík Nine’—who were accused and finally acquitted of “attacking parliament” in December of 2008—media editors, lawyers, police officers, former and current ministers and members of parliament amongst others, did their best to get the defendants sentenced before the actual court proceedings took place. Another case would be the one against anti-war campaigner Lárus Páll Birgisson, whose civil and constitutional rights have repeatedly been violated by the police by the demand of the U.S. embassy in Reykjavík. Lárus has already once been sentenced for refusing to obey the police who illegally ordered him to leave a public pavement in front of the embassy. Another case is going on right now, based on the exact same nonsense.
Neither of these cases nor most other court procedures in this country have been of any concern to the recently uprisen human rights guards of Geir H. Haarde. In the comparison crystallises George Orwell’s ominous saying that all animals are indeed equal, but some animals are more equal than others.
THE BITTER TASTE OF THEIR OWN MEDICINE
In his recent book, titled ‘Bankastræti Núll’, author Einar Már Guðmundsson, one of Iceland’s most critical present time authors, actually compares these two cases—the one against Geir and the one against the Reykjavík Nine—and accuses Geir’s supporters, which he calls the upper class elite, of lacking all unity. “Of course all the other ministers from the collapse-government and the bureaucrats around them should demand to undergo the same trial”, he says and refers to a petition in support of the Reykjavík Nine where hundreds of people said: “Charge all or none! We all attacked the parliament!”.
The argument in that case was that no one had literally attacked parliament, and if those who were charged for it actually attacked then everyone who took part in toppling a government during the winter of 2008-9, would be guilty of that same attack. Haarde and his supporters say the same, that he is not alone responsible for the economic collapse and crisis and should therefore not be on trial. And they are right. Geir H. Haarde is not alone responsible for the sufferings of people living under the über-power of the ruling capitalist civilization. It is the system itself—its structure, values and its definition of “justice”—that bears the responsibility.
But like all other systems, there are people behind this one and Haarde is one of them, not more or less responsible than any other authority figure. Sustaining and maintaining the system’s mechanism requires repressive methods, including political persecutions in the form of court procedures. Geir Haarde’s case demonstrates an incident that happens extremely rarely—but luckily once in a while—when those people are forced to sample the bitter taste of their own medicine. There is not much to say except: Bon appétit!