Mired in TraditionIceland’s Courts and Sexual Assault Law - The Reykjavik Grapevine

Mired in TraditionIceland’s Courts and Sexual Assault Law

Mired in TraditionIceland’s Courts and Sexual Assault Law

Published June 24, 2005

This example is, unfortunately, one of many. A visit to the Icelandic Supreme Court’s website (http://www.haestirettur.is/control/index?pid=333) outlines one ruling after another wherein those convicted of rape and incest are given probation and fines. Even the perpetrator of one of the vilest rapes in Icelandic history, who kidnapped, tortured and brutally raped his victim for 36 hours, was sentenced to only three years in prison, and has been recently released. One could be forgiven for getting the impression that Iceland’s sex crime laws aren’t tough enough, but the Icelandic Penal Code actually allows for up to 16 years in prison – the maximum sentence allowed for any crime – for instances of rape by force, up to 12 years for raping a child under 14, and up to ten years for raping a child under 16.

Why the discrepancy between what sentences the law allows for and what sentences the courts mete out?

The Grapevine got in touch with Kristinn Halldórsson, the judge who passed the four-month sentence for child sexual abuse, to find out what his reasoning was behind the punishment. Halldórsson told us that he was bound by law not to talk about the case, but added that, “the sentence should speak for itself.”

The Grapevine also spoke with Þórunn Þórarinsdóttir, a counselor at rape crisis centre Stígamót, to get her impressions. For her part, she believes that a combination of a lack of understanding of what rape is – as well as basic psychological defence mechanisms – have a part to play.

“I’ve asked judges and police why they give heavier sentences for fraud and robbery [than they do for rape],” she said, “and they’ve told me that when a person steals, they’ve been planning the crime for a while and have it organized how they’re going to commit the crime – they don’t feel rape or incest are planned. Some think these crimes reflect a sickness; that they didn’t know what they were doing. They also sometimes have a hard time facing reality. They think, so-and-so’s a nice guy, they start making excuses for him because it’s unbearable for them to face that he knew what he was doing.”

Alliance Party MP Ágúst Ólafur Ágústsson, who has made rape law reform his primary goal, has another idea as to why judges won’t pass sentences – an unwillingness to break precedent. Or, at least when it comes to sexual assault.
“The courts have pointed out that they are bound by past cases, and that this sort of thing has to develop slowly,” Ágústsson told the Grapevine. “But if we look at sentences for drug trafficking, the sentences are getting longer and longer – the rulings are sometimes up to ten or eleven years. We have to break this vicious circle. If the courts think, ‘Things have always been like this’ then we will never break it. We have sent a message to the courts by providing a maximum sentence for rape, and they shouldn’t ignore the framework in that sense.”

Lawmakers and counselors aren’t the only ones frustrated with the courts – lawyers as well often find themselves against the wall. As prosecutor Herdís Hallmarsdóttir told the Grapevine last year, “In my experience, of all the rapes which are even reported to the police, I’d say only about 25% actually make it into court. Of those, only half end in a conviction.”

While it’s certainly true that there remains a large discrepancy between what sentences the law allows for rape and what sentences are actually handed down by the courts, the law itself is not without room for improvement. Only last year, the Supreme Court tried a man charged with multiple counts of sexually assaulting a girl from the time she was five years old until she was twelve, the details of these assaults recounted in frank detail by the victim herself, but the case was thrown out of court: the statute of limitations had run out for the defendant’s crimes, and he was acquitted.

Currently, the statute is anywhere from five to fifteen years, depending on the seriousness of the offence, beginning when the victim turns 14. This often means that a sexual predator who would normally be found guilty for numerous abuses is acquitted, even if the accused has confessed.

As Ágústsson also pointed out to the Grapevine, statutes of limitation don’t exist for comparable or even lesser crimes. “There are no statute of limitations for a number of other crimes, such as murder, kidnapping, terrorism, crimes against the state, and some types of robbery,” Ágústsson told us. “Before 1983, many laws had no statutes of limitations at all.”
Nor does the statute protect the majority of victims of sexual assault. “Close to 40% of those who seek help at Stígamót are over the age of 30, and 25% are older than 40,” said Ágústsson. “Clearly the law isn’t protecting a large number of the victims.”

Ágústsson has made it his personal crusade to eliminate the statute of limitations on the sexual assault of a child, and introduced a bill last month that would put an end to it. Ágústsson’s bill was backed by the signatures of some 15,000 Icelanders and received the endorsement of Stígamót, the sexual awareness group Blátt Áfram, and youth groups from every party in the country, which, as Ágústsson understates, “is very unique.”

“In my mind, this is a matter of common sense to protect the children and bring sexual predators to justice,” he said.
The protection of children would seem to be a non-partisan issue. And yet when the bill was introduced to the Parliamentary General Committee, committee chairman and Independence Party MP Bjarni Benediktsson rejected it. The primary reason he gave was that the bill made no distinction between “serious” sexual assault of a child and a “minor” one, but that he would be willing to present the bill to the Minister of Justice for review, a reasoning that Ágústsson dismissed as “just another way to put this matter to sleep,” adding, “In my mind all these crimes are serious and should not have different rules for statutes of limitations.”

Ágústsson even went so far as to say that the bill’s rejection was politically motivated. “I think the bill was rejected because a member of the opposition introduced it,” he told the Grapevine. “It’s a tradition in Iceland that bills introduced by the opposition don’t leave committee. It’s a sad culture ruling over this idea that instead of looking at the bill and asking, ‘Does the bill make sense?,’ they reject it outright because it came from the opposition.”

At the time of this writing, MP Benediktsson was not available for comment regarding why the bill, backed by 15,000 signatures, had not been sent to the parliamentary floor.

Both Ágústsson and Þórarinsdóttir want to see the law regarding sexual assault strengthened further. Ágústsson cited Norway as an example, wherein there is only one law for sexual assault, and the courts are left to decide the severity of the offence and sentence accordingly, in contrast with the varying sentences allowed in Icelandic law for different kinds of sexual assault. Þórarinsdóttir had one simple request.

“I’d like to see more convictions,” she told us. “The more convictions there are, the more people will begin to take this seriously and realize that these people aren’t lying.”

But even if the statute of limitations were lifted and the laws on sexual assault were strengthened, could the courts be counted on to follow through? Þórarinsdóttir remains optimistic, believing that change will come about slowly but surely.
“Of course change takes time, but we’re educating new lawyers now who will become judges one day,” she told the Grapevine. “As we say, we who work here are one generation ahead of the system.”

Ágústsson, however, sees only one sure way to create lasting change: replace the government. “We have to have another government that makes these matters a priority,” he said. “This government has had the opportunity for the past ten years to make this very important step in this matter and hasn’t.”

The next parliamentary elections are in 2007, and it might take at least another generation for new judges willing to hand down stricter sentences to replace those currently presiding. In the meantime, most members of parliament will continue to fight for tougher laws, and organizations such as Stígamót and Blátt Áfram will continue to counsel victims and educate the public at large – as well as Iceland’s future judges. It also should be noted that anyone can contact the judges in his/her district (www.heradsdomur.is) as well as the judges of the Supreme Court itself and encourage them to hand down harsher sentences for sexual assault. This may prove to be the most readily available option for those who don’t want to wait a generation before the courts sentence rapists and paedophiles to the furthest extent of the law.

For further information, visit Stígamót’s website: www.stigamot.is

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