'Snorri Páll Jónsson Úlfhildarson' Tag Archive

Sep 12 2013
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The Mark Kennedy Saga – Chapter Iceland


Snorri Páll Jónsson Úlfhildarson Grapevine

Each time a free-floating rumour gets confirmed, and past political behaviour becomes a scandalous spectacle, one cannot resist wondering if such conduct might be going on today. This was the case in 2006, after a grand exposure of espionage the Icelandic state aimed at socialists during the Cold War. During parliamentary discussions following the revelation, Mörður Árnason, MP for the Social-Democratic Alliance (“Samfylkingin”), highlighted the importance of revealing if similar espionage was indeed occurring in present times. If so, he asked, “how is it being conducted? […] Which foreign states have been able to access this information?” Quite typically, those questions were never answered.

Half a decade later, in late 2010, it was revealed that a British police officer, one Mark Kennedy, had travelled around Europe for seven years disguised as environmental and anti-capitalist activist ‘Mark Stone’ and was collecting information about various activist movements and, in some cases, acting as an agent provocateur. Along with the UK, Denmark, Germany, Italy and France — to name but a few of the places where he worked — he did a stint in Iceland’s Eastern highlands in the summer of 2005. In Iceland, he attended a protest camp organised by the environmentalist movement Saving Iceland which targeted the construction of the gargantuan Kárahnjúkar dam and American aluminium giant Alcoa’s smelter in Reyðarfjörður.

The revelation mostly stayed within activist circles and publications, until early 2011, when a public expose of the spy’s true identity lead to the collapse of a UK trial against six climate-change activists, in which Mark’s secretly obtained evidence played a key role. British newspaper The Guardian then took up the case, and the Mark Kennedy saga started to snowball contemporaneously with the broader attention it received, bringing to light a number of other undercover spies.

Sex, Secrecy And Dead Children’s Identities

Shortly after Mark was exposed, Irish and German authorities admitted that he had worked within their jurisdictions and with their knowledge. Due to the ongoing efforts of Andrej Hunko — MP for German left party Die Linke — a truckload of information regarding European cross-border undercover police operations has since seen the light of day.

A recent book on the matter, written by Guardian journalists Paul Lewis and Rob Evans, brings further context to the affair — the mapping of at least 30 years of police espionage and infiltration of environmentalist, anti-racist and anarchist movements in the UK and elsewhere. Among the information revealed, the authors explain how the undercover officers at the Special Demonstration Squad — the undercover unit responsible for the infiltration — had the modus operandi of taking up identities of dead children in order to build up credible alter-egos based on the short lives of real persons.

It has also been revealed that Kennedy — along with others in his position — enjoyed several intimate relationships with some of his prospects, using sex to build up trust and gather information. One infiltrator, Bob Lambert, even fathered a child with one of these women, only to disappear as soon as his undercover employment became too risky. Eight British women who were victims of this tactic have pressed charges against the spies’ employer, the Metropolitan Police, due to the psychological damage they suffered. In a recent episode of investigative TV programme ‘Dispatches’ on Channel 4, some of them described their experience as having been mass-raped by the state, as they would never have consented to sleeping with the police officers had they been aware of their real identities. Adding insult to injury, their claims will not be heard openly — the British High Court recently ruled that it would take place in the secret Investigatory Powers Tribunal.

Saving Hell’s Angels

Enter Iceland, where the big question concerned whether Mark Kennedy had operated with or without the Icelandic authorities’ knowledge and approval. According to the country’s penal code, a foreign party or state’s espionage that takes place within the jurisdiction of the Icelandic state — or is directed at something or someone therein — is illegal and punishable with five-years imprisonment. Had Mark operated without the authorities’ knowledge, it should have caused an international conflict. If he, on the other hand, collaborated with the Icelandic police, it would have equaled the invoking of proactive investigative powers, which the Icelandic police apparently didn’t have at that time.*

Thus the affair entered Iceland’s parliament in late January 2011. Assuming the former version being more likely than the latter, the above-mentioned MP Mörður Árnason asked his fellow party-member and then-Minister for Foreign Affairs, Össur Skarphéðinsson, about the government’s possible actions regarding the matter. After a few lousy personal jokes thrown between the two, Össur claimed he would wait for a report on the matter — conducted by the National Commissioner of the Icelandic Police — which Ögmundur Jónasson, MP for the Left Greens and then Minister of the Interior, had already requested.

But when finally published by the Commissioner’s National Security Unit in May 2011, it was pretty much impossible to estimate the relevance of the report, as the details of Ögmundur’s request were never made public. It was, however, clear that the National Commissioner — whose report literally equated environmentalist activists with Hells Angels — wasn’t about to bring any concrete information out into the public domain.

Lost In Information

Although admitting that the police received information about the activists and their plans via domestic and foreign sources, and that the Icelandic police collaborated with foreign police authorities regarding the protests, the report’s authors nevertheless fully dodged the question regarding the Icelandic police’s alleged collaboration with Mark Kennedy. The main conclusion of the report merely found that “during an overhaul of data at the National Commissioner’s office, no information has come forth enabling an answer regarding whether this agent provocateur […] was here in collaboration with or without the knowledge of the Icelandic police in 2005.”

Despite criticism from Saving Iceland and Árni Finnsson, head of the Iceland Nature Conservation Association, which both accused the minister of condoning cover-ups and evasions by accepting these results, Ögmundur never really touched officially on the issue again. Neither did Össur nor Mörður or — as a matter of fact — anyone else from the establishment.

The truth regarding Kennedy’s operations in Iceland is still not publicly acknowledged, and the absurdity of the issue as it now stands is probably best described by Ögmundur’s own words, taken from an article published on Smugan — a now defunct leftist news-site —  and his last public remark on the report: “The National Commissioner’s report states that the Icelandic police obtained information from abroad concerning the protests at Kárahnjúkar, but that the police do not have information about how this information was obtained.”

* It is, in fact, questionable if the Iceland police had proactive investigative powers or not. As a result of weak laws and a lack of regulations, it actually seems that until 2011 the police had just about carte blanche regarding whom to spy on and for what reason. See more about it here.

Click here to go to the support site for the women’s legal action against the Metropolitan Police.

Watch the above-mentioned Dispatches show here below:

The Police’s Dirty Secret (47mins – Dispatches/Channel4 – 24JUN2013) from Casey Oliver on Vimeo.

Dec 05 2012
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Angeli Novi’s Time Bomb Ticking in the Continuum of History


By Snorri Páll Jónsson Úlfhildarson, originally published in the Reykjavík Grapevine.

There is a photograph by Richard Peter of a statue of an angel overlooking the card-house-like ruins of Dresden. During three days in February 1945, the German city was annihilated by the allied forces using a new firestorm technique of simultaneously dropping bombs and incendiary devices onto the city.

The photo resonates with philosopher Walter Benjamin’s essay ‘On the Concept of History,’ in which he adds layers of meaning to a painting by Paul Klee titled ‘Angelus Novus’. Benjamin describes Klee’s angel as ‘The Angel of History’ whose face is turned towards the past. “Where we see the appearance of a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe, which unceasingly piles rubble on top of rubble and hurls it before his feet.”

Wanting to “awaken the dead and to piece together what has been smashed,” the Angel’s wings are stretched out by a storm from Paradise, which “drives him irresistibly into the future, to which his back is turned, while the rubble-heap before him grows sky-high.”

“That which we call progress,” Benjamin concludes, “is this storm.”

Can You Stand in the Way of Progress?

If the storm disenables us to fix the ruins of the past, what about preventing the storm from blowing? That would not be so simple according to art collective Angeli Novi, comprised of Steinunn Gunnlaugsdóttir and Ólafur Páll Sigurðsson, whose exhibition is currently showing at The Living Art Museum (Nýló).

Under a confrontational title — ‘You Can’t Stand in the Way of Progress,’ shaped as the ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ sign of Auschwitz — Angeli Novi have greatly altered the museum’s space with an installation of sculptures, soundscapes, smells and videos, including a 20-minute film of the same title as the exhibition. The film is a kind of kaleidoscopic time machine, examining the plight of generations which, one after the other, become tools and puppets of economic and historical structures.

In a well-cooked and stark manner — adjectives borrowed from Nýló’s director Gunnhildur Hauksdóttir — often shot through with streaks of black humour, the exhibition displays a dark image of Western civilization via versatile manifestations of the horrors embedded in capitalism, industrialism, nationalism, religion, the dualistic and linear thought of occidental culture, and the individual’s buried-alive position in society.

The metaphor here is literal as the only visible body-parts of the film’s thirty protagonists are their heads. The rest are buried under ground. Between themselves, their chewing mouths fight over ceremonial ribbons carrying a collection of Western society’s fundamental values, doctrines and clichés, in a dynamic collision with a collage of significant images behind them — “the history of Western thought,” as author Steinar Bragi points out. Towering over a coffin shaped as a baby’s cot, located in a mausoleum at the museum’s entrance, the same ribbons have been tied onto a funeral wreath. A single cliché, “From the Cradle to the Grave,” hangs between the mouths of two children’s heads that stick out of the black sand below the coffin. A smooth corporate female voice greets the visitors: “Welcome to our world!”

I Sense, Therefore I Think

“It’s very pessimistic,” Steinar Bragi says during our conversation in a bunker-like room of Nýló. “The film shows us disembodied beasts, fighting over the phrases that our entire society is built upon. I always see the head as the rational approach to life, stuck in these dualistic pairs that are so far from reality as I experience it. We have sensibilities, then emotions, and finally there are words and reason. Reason is useful for certain tasks, when one has to go from place A to place B, but it’s only a tool to be used on something far more extensive.”

Steinar and I agree that society is constantly simplified into Cartesian dualism — “I think, therefore I am” — the ground zero of Western thought. And while dualism doesn’t necessarily reject sensibilities and emotions, Steinar maintains that it locates reason on a higher level. “Reason is expected to control, which it certainly does in a small and unglamorous context, but it’s only an expression of what lies beneath.”

Enemies of Progress?

It’s clear that the core of this rationalism is simplification such as how political and social conflicts tend to be reduced to a fight between alleged good and evil forces. This not only brings us to the religious nature of the myth of progress, but also the power of language. Because “although they are hollow and empty and repeatedly chewed on, these phrases are also very powerful,” as literary scholar Benedikt Hjartarson points out. “They conduct the way society is shaped. They manifest the social and economic reality we live with.”

As former director of US aluminium corporation Alcoa Alain Belda told the newspaper Morgunblaðið in March 2003: “Some people are against progress.” He was referring to the opponents of the Kárahnjúkar dams, constructed in Iceland’s highlands to create energy for Alcoa’s smelter. “But fortunately,” he continued, “the world is growing and people are requesting better lives.”

Such an argument equals economic growth and people’s welfare, portraying the megaproject’s opponents as enemies of progress. At the same time it negates the destructive nature of progress, manifested for instance in the culturally genocidal impacts — in the form of displacement of populations — and irreversible environmental destruction often associated with large-scale energy production, and how the lives of whole generations are wasted by wars waged for power and profit.

“We see this contradiction within modernity,” Benedikt continues, “how the idea of progress thrives on destruction and always calls for annihilation.” But unlike the revolutionary destruction encouraged by 19th Century anarchist philosopher Michail Bakunin — who stated, “the passion for destruction is a creative passion too!” — the annihilation inherent to progress is rather used as a stimulus for an unaltered continuum of the status quo under the pretext of development. Thus, the contradictory nature is evident again, as well as the religious one: “The present is never here,” Benedikt says, “it’s always something we are aiming for.”

Violence Intrinsic to Social Contracts

The film displays a great amount of violence, which musician Teitur Magnússon sees with a strong reference to alienation. “One feels like it’s somehow supernatural, like it’s not the work of humanity but rather of a monster that’s eating everything up, and we don’t seem to have any control of it.”

Artist Bryndís Hrönn Ragnarsdóttir furthermore connects this brutality with authority. “Humans aren’t able to handle more power than over themselves,” she says. “As soon as someone is granted higher power, violence enters the picture.” She maintains that some sort of violence is intrinsic to all simplifications — “all of society’s attempts to try and settle upon something” — meaning a wide range of social contracts, from organized religion to written and unwritten rules regarding people’s behaviour.

A Leap Into the Future

As Angeli Novi’s subject is not only complex but also polarized — layered with our cultural history of construction and destruction, repression and revolt — the exhibition doesn’t preach any simple solutions to the great problems it addresses. Such attempts are often just as contradictory as the myth of progress itself, or as philosopher Slavoj Žižek ironically sums up in his analysis of what he calls ‘a decaf reality,’ when the “very thing which causes damage should already be the medicine.”

Thus, one cannot resist wondering if there actually is a way out of the horrors analysed and manifested in the exhibition. Or is humanity bound to be stuck in a premature burial while the seemingly unstoppable catastrophe witnessed by Benjamin’s Angel of History keeps on enlarging into eternity?

With images referring to France’s July Revolution of 1830, Angeli Novi reject such a vision and suggest instead a peculiarly creative approach to revolt. Already during the revolution’s first day, clocks on church towers and palaces all over Paris were shot down and destroyed, signifying the urgent need to nullify predominant social structures and ideologies by putting an end to the time of the oppressors.

In continuum of this rebellious tradition of what philosopher Herbert Marcuse referred to as “arresting time” — directly related to what William Burroughs called “blowing a hole in time” — Angeli Novi transcend the well known demand for “all power to the people” with a leap into the future, granting wings to the mind and calling for all power to the imagination.

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See also:

Saving Iceland: Kárahnjúkar Dam Blown Up in New Film by Angeli Novi

Jón Proppé: Standing in the way of progress

Þóroddur Bjarnason: Jafnvægislist (Icelandic only)

Angeli Novi’s webiste

May 06 2012

Back to the Future — The Unrestricted Spying of Yesterday… and Tomorrow?


By Snorri Páll Jónsson Úlfhildarson, originally published in The Reykjavík Grapevine.

This simply means that until spring last year, the police literally had a carte blanche regarding whom to spy on and for whatever reasons they chose. Unbeknownst the public, the instructions allowed unrestricted espionage.

“Good things happen slowly,” Björn Bjarnason, Iceland’s former Minister of Justice, wrote on his blog in March of last year when his successor in office, Minister of the Interior Ögmundur Jónasson, called for a press conference to announce that the police would soon be granted proactive investigation powers.

While Ögmundur and other Left Green MPs often criticised Björn for his aggressive efforts to increase police powers during the latter’s six years in office, he is now advocating for increased police powers as part of The State’s crusade against purported organised crime, which is believed to be predominantly manifested in a number of motorcycle gangs, including the Hells Angels.

A bill that he proposed to parliament last month does not contain the infinite investigation powers that the police have openly asked for, but does nevertheless allow them to start investigating people who they believe are planning acts that would fall under the category of organised crime and are punishable by at least four years of imprisonment.

While the case is usually presented as the police’s struggle to gain greater justifiable investigative powers — in which they have supposedly not fully succeeded — the fact is that, from at least July 1999 to May 2011, the police had unrestricted authority to monitor whomever they wanted due to poorly defined regulations. Read More

Dec 10 2011

For the Greater Glory of… Justice?


By Snorri Páll Jónsson Úlfhildarson.
Originally published in the Reykjavík Grapevine.

Criminal court cases, waged by The State against political dissidents for acts of protest and civil disobedience, can be understood in two ways. Firstly, the juridical system can be seen as a wholly legitimate platform for solving social conflicts. Such a process then results with a verdict delivered by Lady Justice’s independent agents—a ruling located somewhere on the scale between full punishment and absolute acquittal. According to this view, it is at this point only that a punishment possibly enters the picture. And only if deserved.

Secondly—and herein lies a fundamental difference—the original decision to press charges can be seen as a punishment in itself, regardless of the final verdict. With these two points of understanding in mind, two recent verdicts, which have not received much attention, are worth observing.

You Shall Not Run

Number one is the case against Haukur Hilmarsson and Jason Slade who in June 2008, while attempting to stop an airplane from departing, and thereby deporting Kenyan asylum seeker Paul Ramses to Italy, ran onto a closed-off area at the Leifur Eiríksson International Airport in Keflavík. To shorten a long and complicated story (covered in-length here) their political sprint snowballed into protests of all kinds, eventually bringing the asylum seeker back to Iceland, where he and his family were granted an asylum. Read More

Nov 05 2011
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When Two Become One – On The Ever Impenetrable Handshake Between Public Relations and Media


By Snorri Páll Jónsson Úlfhildarson, originally published in The Reykjavík Grapevine.

Those who are yet to give up on Icelandic media cannot have avoided noticing one Kristján Már Unnarsson, a news director and journalist at TV station Stöð 2. Kristján, who in 2007 received the Icelandic Press Awards for his coverage of “everyday countryside life”, is a peculiar fan of manful and mighty constructions and loves to tell good news to and about all the “good heavy industry guys” that Iceland has to offer.

To be more precise, Kristján has, for at least a decade (and I say “at least” just because my memory and research doesn’t take me further back), gone on a rampage each and every time he gets the chance to tell his audience about the newest of news in Iceland’s heavy industry and energy affairs. He talks about gold-mills when referring to dams built to power aluminium production; and when preparing an evening news item on, say, plans regarding energy and aluminium production, he usually doesn’t see a reason for talking to more than one person – a person who, almost without exception, is in favour of whatever project is being discussed.

After witnessing Kristján’s latest contribution to the ongoing development of heavy industry and large-scale energy production, i.e. his coverage of Alcoa’s recently announced decision not to continue with its plan of building a new aluminium smelter in Húsavík, wherein he managed to blame just anything but Alcoa itself for the company’s decisions, I couldn’t resist asking (and, really, not for the first time): What can really explain this way too obvious one-sidedness, manifest not only in this one journalist’s work but seemingly the majority of news coverage concerning heavy industry? Read More

Sep 09 2011
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Time Stands Still — Activists Stuck in a Seemingly Endless Legal Limbo


By Snorri Páll Jónsson Úlfhildarson

On Friday September 2, two men appeared in court in downtown Reykjavík. It wasn’t their first time—and it probably won’t be their last. If found guilty, the defendants, Haukur Hilmarsson and Jason Thomas Slade, face up to six years in prison, due to a peculiar action on their behalves that marks a turning point in Icelandic asylum-seeker affairs.

On the morning of July 3, 2008, Haukur and Jason darted onto the runway of Leifur Eiríksson International Airport in Keflavík, hoping to prevent a flight from departing, and deporting. Inside the plane, which was headed to Italy, sat one Paul Ramses, a Kenyan refugee. The two activists ran alongside the plane, and placed themselves in front of it—halting its takeoff.

It would be wrong to assume that anything has changed since 2008. Iceland may have seen an infamous economic collapse followed by a popular uprising and a new government, but for the two activists it must feel like time is standing still. Since their arrest at the airport, they have been stuck in a seemingly endless legal limbo, first charged for housebreaking and reckless endangerment and later thrown between all levels of the juridical system. Last Friday, the case’s principal proceedings took place for the second time in Reykjavík’s District Court, after the courts original sentences were ruled null and void by Iceland’s Supreme Court. Read More

Jul 29 2011
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Shoot Teenagers, Fight Environmentalists


By Snorri Páll Jónsson Úlfhildarson. Originally published in the Reykjavík Grapevine.

In a very short time the discourse following last week’s right-wing terrorist attacks in Norway reached both absurd and scary heights, with one of the best examples being American TV and radio host Glenn Beck’s attempt to justify the mass murderer by comparing the social democratic youth camp on Utøya with the Hitler Youth. In Iceland it was the writings of Björn Bjarnason, a right-wing conservative and Iceland’s Minister of Justice from 2003 to 2009.

Only a day after the attacks, Björn, who systematically voiced what he called “the need” for the establishment of an army-like police force when he was Minister of Justice, wrote on his website – one of Iceland’s oldest blog-sites, frequently quoted by journalists – that the Norwegian state, with its powerful secret police force, should have all the necessary tools to fight the threat of terrorism. According to Björn, this police force keeps a strict eye on potential terrorist cells – groups that operate “in service of political ideals” or “under the banner of environmentalism or nature conservation.” Read More

Jun 23 2011
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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. Read More

Aug 18 2010
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Does Man Own Earth?


On Magma, Björk, the separation of philosophy and reality, xenophobia, green industry, false solutions, borders, Earth conservation and liberation. By Snorri Páll Jónsson Úlfhildarson and originally published in The Reykjavík Grapvine, August 13th 2010.

There are countless reasons for Magma Energy not being allowed to purchase HS Orka. Those who have no idea why should quit reading this and get their hands on books like Naomi Klein’s ‘The Shock Doctrine’ and documentaries like ‘The Big Sellout’ by Florian Opitz. They show how the privatisation of natural resources brings about increased class division and poor people’s diminished access to essentials—without exception.

People could also study the history of Ross Beaty, the man that wants to build Magma Energy to being ‘the biggest and best geothermal energy enterprise in the world.’ Ross is the founder and chairman of Pan American Silver Corporation, which operates metal mines in Bolivia, Mexico and Peru, where mining is done by the book: environmental disasters, human rights violations, low paid labour and union restrictions, to mention but a few of the industry standards. Read More

Sep 16 2009

Environmentalism is Not Prosperity Politics!


By Snorri Páll Jónsson Úlfhildarson, originally published in Morgunblaðið – After last autumn’s economical collapse, the discussion about environmental issues changed rapidly. Politicians who before spoke with full force against further energy- and heavy industry projects have now completely turned around, with the premises that environmentalism is prosperity politics. The head of the Left Green party recently called the party’s environmental policy puritanical and said that it does not apply in times of economical depression. The last fortress must then be fallen – at least amongst those who believe in reforms inside the representative democracy.

Now the plan is to push through an aluminium smelter in Helguvík with all its appropriate energy construction. Svandís Svavarsdóttir, the minister of environment, recently said that there is not enough energy on the Reykjanes penisula to fulfill the smelter’s energy needs. Others have pointed out that harnessing the geothermal areas there will be such a massive attack that the areas will most likely dry up in a short time. Katrín Júlíusdóttir, the minister of industry, has stated her positive opinion about Landsvirkjun producing energy for Helguvík – and the Þjórsá river comes immadeatly up to one’s mind. She also seems to be willing to renew the memorandum of understanding between the government and Alcoa, which according to the latter’s plans means that the whole geothermal areas in north-east Iceland have to be harnessed and dams built in one or more glacial rivers. Read More