From Iceland — Highlights from 2005

Highlights from 2005

Published January 13, 2006

Highlights from 2005

Icelandic Government Criticised for Supporting the War in Iraq
On 18 March 2003, coalition forces – led primarily by the US and the UK – launched an invasion against Iraq. Along with the help of countries such as Costa Rica, Palau, and Eritrea, Iceland also joined in the effort, allowing planes going to and coming from Iceland to land, refuel, and take off in this country. While then-Prime Minister Davíð Oddsson and then-Foreign Minister Halldór Ásgrímsson were both enthusiastic about taking part – so much so, that they skipped the entire process of putting the matter to a parliamentary vote – the Icelandic people were themselves less than enthusiastic.

According to a Gallup poll conducted at the close of 2004, at least 78% of the country wanted out of the “coalition of the willing,” while a mere 14% favoured the war effort. With the reflexes Icelandic protestors are famous for, in January 2005 a group calling itself the Movement for Active Democracy published a full-page ad denouncing Iceland’s participation in the war – in the New York Times. Thickening the plot, it became clear that both Oddsson and Ásgrímsson had violated the constitution by not putting the matter to a vote, and opposition party leaders suddenly sprang to life, some even calling for the resignation of the both of them.
In the end, there was only one resignation: then-Journalists’ Union President Róbert Marshall, who resigned from his chair after running a story for Stöð 2 which put the time of Oddsson’s communiqué with the White House off by four hours. Despite a few more grumbles within the halls of parliament, the Foreign Ministry declared the Iraq controversy “over” by the end of March 2005.

Bobby Fischer Receives Asylum in Iceland
On 22 March, former chess world champion Bobby Fischer was granted Icelandic citizenship. At the time, he was being held in a Japanese prison for trying to travel on a passport that the US government invalidated, wanted by American authorities for breaking a trade embargo with Yugoslavia in 1992 and later, for tax evasion. Fischer requested asylum from the Icelandic government in the summer of 2004, but it wasn’t until that winter that former bodyguard Sæmundur Pálsson and a few avid chess players began to pressure the Icelandic government into granting Fischer Icelandic citizenship.

Reaction to the move was a mix of jubilation, indignation, and indifference. Many saw Fischer as a wrongly prosecuted crazy person wanted for crimes of little significance, while others saw him as a justly prosecuted crazy person undeserving of rubber-stamped citizenship. Regardless of public opinion (according to a Gallup poll conducted in April, 40% believed it was wrong to grant Fischer citizenship while 25% were undecided), Fischer’s passport was sent to Japan. On 25 March, he arrived in Iceland courtesy of a plane owned by Baugur Group and, within 18 hours of his arrival, let loose his infamous anti-Semitism during a press conference, thereby violating Iceland’s hate speech law. No charges were pressed.

While the US did not officially condemn Iceland for granting Fischer citizenship, Interpol informed Icelandic authorities that should Fischer ever leave the country, he would be arrested immediately. Fischer is occasionally spotted riding the bus or sitting in bookstores, presumably reading, but has permanently retired from chess.

Kárahnjúkar Sparks Debate, Again
The Kárahnjúkar dam project made headlines again in 2005, starting in April, when geologist Grímur Björnsson alleged that national power company Landsvirkjun was sloppy in its calculations regarding the earth’s temperature and its effects on the dam’s construction. Landsvirkjun dismissed the claims, but would later have to add 150 square metres to the dam’s size after not taking into account summer warmth melting snow and ice in the highlands, which raised the water level more than Landsvirkjun had calculated.

Construction ran into another snag later that month when construction contractor Impregilo was accused of not paying Icelandic taxes from the wages of foreign workers. While this matter was settled out of court, numerous other labour violations – in particular, regarding paying foreign workers a wage consistent with what an Icelandic worker would make for the same work – would continue to plague the company.

At the start of the summer, aluminium company Alcoa set its sites on building smelters in both Suðurnes and Eyjafjörður, drawing criticism from both the Leftist-Green Party and a handful of protestors. This tension would come to a head in 14 June, when two Icelanders – Arna Ösp Magnúsardóttir and Ólafur Páll Sigurðsson – as well as British environmental activist Paul Gill interrupted an industrialists meeting at Hótel Nordica, splashing attendees with green-coloured skyr. While Gill was held and later released with 30 days probation and no fines, Magnúsardóttir and Sigurðsson would later be charged with damages. That July, numerous Icelanders and foreigners alike would set up camp in the highlands, not far from the Kárahnjúkar construction site. While the site was largely peaceful, there were some minor instances of trespassing and damage to property at the Kárahnjúkar site itself, mostly in the form of protestors chaining themselves to heavy machinery and spray-painting buildings. When the protestors lost their camping permit, they would turn to Reykjavík in August for further spray-painting activities. After a number of foreign protestors were deported from the country, protest actions against the construction of Kárahnjúkar died down.

The Kárahnjúkar dam project continues to this day, with more aluminium smelters planned for the near future.

Baugur Group Goes to Trial For Economic Crimes
Beginning with an investigation that started in 2002, Jón Ásgeir Jóhannesson, chairman of corporate giant Baugur Group, was finally taken to Reykjavík District Court in September 2005 for 40 economic crimes including tax evasion, fraud, and misappropriation of funds. While this looked like the trial of the decade – arguably the largest employer in Iceland versus the government, amidst grumbles (within the Baugur-controlled media) that the investigation itself was politically motivated – the court threw out all charges for lack of evidence. In addition, the court has also ordered that the government treasury will pay primary defence witness Gestur Jónsson 10,218,275 ISK (about 162,194 USD). The four other lawyers on Jóhannesson’s defence team will also be awarded between one million and 3.7 million ISK, in addition to 12,788,426 ISK (about 202,990 USD) in general damages, which will also be paid from the state treasury.

Nonetheless, state prosecutors vowed to take the case to the Supreme Court, which they did later in the month. But what gained considerably more public attention was the scandal regarding stolen e-mails: Fréttablaðið reported that according to e-mails they’ve received, Jón Steinar Gunnlaugsson – now a judge on the Supreme Court but a lawyer in June 2002 – sent editor of Morgunblaðið Styrmir Gunnarsson a copy of the case filed against Baugur by Jón Gerald Sullenberger. Jónína Benediktsdóttir, who had been in e-mail contact with Gunnarsson regarding the Baugur case, says that Fréttablaðið had stolen her e-mails. In response, Benediktsdóttir went to the police and issued an injunction against Fréttablaðið. The gag order placed on Fréttablaðið by the police commissioner still holds.

The Supreme Court only accepted eight of the 40 charges against Baugur Group, citing a lack of clarity in the language of the charges, which are still pending. As for whether or not the investigation of Baugur Group was politically motivated, Oddsson told Icelandic television station Stöð 2 last July that, “If the case against him [Baugur Group CEO Jón Ásgeir Johannesson] is politically motivated, then he has nothing to worry about as the case will be thrown out of court.”

Davíð Oddsson Retires to Central Bank Chairman Position
After 14 years as chairman of the ruling Independence Party, Davíð Oddsson officially retired from politics on 14 October 2005 to take the chairman position at the Central Bank. Oddsson’s political career stretches back over 30 years, starting out as chairman of the Young Independence Party members and serving on Reykjavík city council, later to become the city’s mayor from 1982 to 1991. From there, he became party chairman and prime minister of Iceland, and handed power over to Progressive Party chairman and Foreign Minister Halldór Ásgrímsson in September 2004, when Oddsson became foreign minister.

During his farewell speech, Oddsson heavily criticised the Social Democratic Party for having ties to Baugur Group and claimed that some members of the Social Democrats seemed to regard the party as a subsidiary of a cartel. Social Democrat chairman Ingibjörg Sólrún Gísladóttir told Fréttablaðið that she found it remarkable that the most powerful politician in Iceland for 14 years should behave like a bitter victim when he voluntarily chose to step down. This clearly showed that he regarded the Social Democrats as the Independence Party’s main adversary.

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