Published February 15, 2011
While a verdict is still pending in the trial of The Reykjavik Nine, it’s safe to say that the prosecution has lost the case in the court of public opinion. The decisive blow came during the court hearings in January, delivered by the prosecution itself.
The state prosecutor, Lára V. Júlíusdóttir, had called to witness numerous police officers, parliamentary security guards as well as the bureau chief of parliament, Helgi Bernódusson. The plan was no doubt to have the witnesses attest to the violent nature of the supposed attack and the determination of those accused to inflict harm, to prove that the accused were members of a conspiracy to compromise the “independence and sanctity” of Alþingi, a crime carrying a minimum sentence of one year in jail.
“WE DO NOT LET THESE KINDS OF PEOPLE INSIDE”
What emerged from the testimony of these witnesses was a completely different picture. It was revealed that the staff of the Parliament had deleted most of the footage the security cameras recorded that day. Only about four minutes had been preserved, while everything that transpired after the police arrived at the scene has been lost, meaning it is impossible to get a complete picture of what happened. This is all the more serious, as several of those accused have described scenes of police brutality, and everyone (including the police) has described the scene as “chaotic”. Under questioning, none of the police officers could say who had been in charge of operations, nor could they say if the guests present had been given a clear order to evacuate the building. What they could say was that they received a message from Alþingi that the house was “under attack,” a message that seems to have prompted every available officer in the greater Reykjavík area to rush to the scene without any clear idea of what was really going on.
The police officers and security guards admitted that none of the accused— or the larger group of people who attempted to visit the public benches that day—had been armed, that in fact none of them had carried anything that could be used as a weapon. So why had their visit been flagged as an “attack”? The parliamentary security guards said that the people had not hung up their coats, and one of them remarked that they “do not let these kinds of people inside,” without further explanation.
CLASSIC BUMBLING OVERREACTION AND INCOMPETENCE
Far from depicting a careful anarchist conspiracy to attack Alþingi, what transpired was a classic picture of the kind of bumbling, unnecessarily brutal overreaction and incompetence that characterises the way governments react when the public seeks to exercise its constitutional right to protest.
News accounts of the trial focused on the lost footage from the security cameras and descriptions of police brutality, as well as one of the judicial precedents the prosecution referenced. Arguing that the supposed attack was a organised criminal act—and it was therefore unnecessary to establish exactly how each of the accused had participated in the ‘attack’—the prosecution pointed to a judicial precedence where a gang of Polish criminals had recently been sentenced for a brutal attack in one of Reykjavík’s suburbs.
Of course Lára was not arguing The Reykjavik Nine were a Polish criminal gang. Nevertheless, this was seized upon by the press and the public, who saw in this an apt illustration of how the government had overreacted in this case, and how the prosecution had lost all sense of proportion. Commentators pointed out that the entire case and the revelations during the trial about “lost” security camera footage had seriously damaged the image of Alþingi, and that the entire trial was a farce.
THEY HAVE MOST CERATINLY FAILED
We have yet to see whether the judges view the case in this light; whether they were convinced by the prosecution that the nine had indeed conspired to attack Alþingi, in the process attacking policemen and parliamentary guards. Or, whether they were swayed by the defence, which argued that the nine had only wished to exercise their constitutional right to visit the public benches, and that the supposed violence amounted to scuffles resulting from the chaos caused by the overreaction of police and guards.
No matter the impending verdict, the supporters of The Reykjavik Nine were jubilant at the last day of the trial. A large and diverse network of activists had formed during the course of the trial. This grassroots movement had organised support concerts, written countless newspaper articles and blog posts, and then live-blogged the entire trial proceedings on January 18-20, the first time a trial is live-blogged in Iceland. The supporters had also managed to get the attention of international media and activists. At a nearby café, which had served as a makeshift centre for the supporters, the air was celebratory.
If the aim of the authorities had been to squash protest and dispirit activists by prosecuting The Reykjavik Nine, they have most certainly failed.