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.

During the case’s most recent court proceedings—the third one, indeed, after already rolling through Reykjavík’s District Court and Iceland’s Supreme Court—the two accused attempted a moral defence, speaking solely about the act for which they were charged and which they justified with a reference to the asylum seeker’s desperate need and the large-scale impacts of their actions. But neither prosecutor nor judge were willing to speak of these things, focusing instead on fences and the possibility of destroying an airplane’s engine by being sucked into one such. Eventually the two were found guilty of violating air-safety regulations and air-traffic laws, and ruled to pay a fine, lower than what the State pays for executing the trial.

You Shall Not Stand

Number two is the case against Lárus Páll Birgisson who recently was sentenced for disobeying police orders and this is in fact his second sentencing in a year, due to exactly the same scenario: Lárus stands on a sidewalk in front of the U.S. embassy in Reykjavík, holding a sign bearing a message against war. Police arrives after a complaint from the embassy and order him to leave the sidewalk. Lárus rejects, citing his legally and constitutionally protected right to protest, and official data regarding the sidewalk’s public status. He is then arrested, charged and finally sentenced.

And what is it, so heavy and hazardous, that undermines his right to protest in public? “It is well-known,” says in the judge’s verdict, “that embassies worldwide have in recent years and decades been targets of perpetrators and hence it is not strange that their staff is on alert regarding traffic in the most nearest surroundings.” And not a single additional word. The justification starts and ends in one and the same sentence, referring to something “well-known”—a concept as blurry, insignificant and out-of-context as “public opinion” and “common sense”.

You Shall be Punished

On the surface, these sentences per se are of no heavy-weight importance for The State (actually minor enough, according to recent rules, not to be published officially, which might—possibly—explain the little-as-no attention). And while the sentenced ones would obviously have preferred different results, the relatively low fines are certainly not equivalent to physical imprisonment.

So, what is the use then? In fact, both cases perfectly embody the second above-mentioned way of understanding—that the punishment lies in the charges themselves but not the final verdict. Not only does it consume money, time and energy from those directly involved, but its social impacts are also dead serious.

To begin with, such verdicts give the police a further green light for giving illegal orders and arresting those who disobey in the name of their rights. Probably more importantly, they clearly determine the precedent that it is worth forcing political dissidents into long and costly court cases—in these two cases keeping people inside the court system for years and repeatedly charging the same man for the same completely harmless act—even when the final results amount to be mere small-talk. An ongoing and ever-hanging threat of sentences, fines and jail-time, is more than likely to keep people away from resisting oppression, meaning that the threat is a form of silencing, a form of oppression, itself.

For Mine is the State, the Power and the Justice

Regarding the first-mentioned way of understanding, it might be worth wondering if these court cases possibly manifest a resolution of social conflicts. In order to be so, the discussion in court would have had to be free from anything like “well-known” or “public-good” and instead deal with the tough tug between status-quo—such as airport rules and fences, or the police’s right to order and be obeyed—and people’s legal, ethical and natural rights to directly and spontaneously interfere with their up-front reality.

But as Haukur Hilmarsson said during his procedure, one of the most humiliating factors of being dragged through the courts is to have a dialogue based on The State’s premises. No matter how willing the defendant is to speak about his action and debate its over-all legitimacy, in such context Lady Justice just does not seem to weigh a challenging argument. The weighing-scale might be broken… or is this—punishing via prosecuting—maybe, after all, what solving social conflicts and doing justice is essentially about?