Last week the Speaker of Alþingi, Social Democrat Ásta Ragnheiður Jóhannesdóttir, was presented with the signatures of 705 people who demand that either the trumped up charges against the ‘Reykjavík Nine’ be dropped, or they too be charged with the same crimes.
The organisers of the petition (or mass confession, if you will) argue that it’s outrageous to indict the Reykjavík Nine for having violated the first clause of the 100th article of the penal code (which deals with ‘attacks against the independence and integrity of Alþingi’), a crime that carries a minimum penalty of one year in prison, and a maximum one of life behind bars. They argue that if the Reykjavík Nine were truly guilty of such a heinous attack on Alþingi, everyone who participated in the ‘pots and pans revolution’ of 2009 should be charged with the same crime. The mass protests in January 2009, when the protesters laid siege to the house of Parliament for several days, was far more disruptive and threatening to “the integrity of Alþingi” than the Reykjavík Nine’s attempted visit to the public benches of parliament on December 8, 2008.
The 705 signatories to the mass confession Ásta Ragnheiður received demanded that they be charged for their participation in the pots and pans revolution, that they, too, be charged for having “attacked parliament.” If the Reykjavík Nine should stand trial, they should, too. And anyone who not only confesses to a crime that carries a maximum sentence of life in prison, but practically demands that he stand trial for it, should be taken seriously.
As the crime in question was one against Alþingi, one would have thought that its speaker would take the matter seriously. But no. Sure, Ásta Ragnheiður accepted the signatures, but at the same time she stressed that she did not have any authority to do anything about them. Nor did she respond in any official capacity. Having made this dismissive statement, she hurried away.
The judicial system and its independence
Since then Ásta Ragnheiður has said that she has shelved the petition, and that she would in fact not take any action in the matter. Apparently, the speaker of Alþingi believes public confessions to serious crimes against the institution she represents are something that don’t need to be taken seriously.
This was in keeping with her previous public statements on the issue. Ásta Ragnheiður has argued that the affair doesn’t really concern her at all. The courts should be trusted to handle the case, and that moreover she was never in any real capacity involved with it.
But let’s pause for a minute.
Sure: The charges are brought by the State Prosecutor, not Alþingi. But it was indeed taken up only after the Secretary General of Alþingi requested that the State Prosecutor do so. In his request, the Secretary General even identifies the different laws he believed had been broken – including the first paragraph of the 100th article of the penal code. The Secretary General serves under the Speaker of Alþingi.
Not only did the entire case originate in her office, Ásta Ragnheiður has on several occasions made it clear that she feels very strongly about the case.
In response to a parliamentary inquiry, she stated that the Reykjavík Nine, and the other protesters who entered the house of parliament that day had “forced their way into the house of parliament,” that they “overpowered” staff and guards and generally behaved in a “violent” and “threatening” manner. According to her, it was “obvious” that the group had “no compunction about using force to get into contact with members of parliament.” She also stressed that the protesters had entered Alþingi through “the back door.” All of this was supposedly caught by surveillance cameras.
Since then, the video from said surveillance camera has been released to the media, and it shows no angry mob overpowering guards and policemen, no one forcing their way into Alþingi. Furthermore, the entrance the group used is the public one – only MPs, Ministers and others on official state business use the front entrance to the house. Nothing in the case files supports the claim that the protesters used violence or threats of violence – and it is quite simply absurd to claim that the protesters attempted to get into “contact” with MPs. The protesters hoped to get onto the public benches, which are located high above the chamber. There was absolutely no indication at any point that the group intended to harm anyone: nobody was armed, and nobody in the group made threats of physical violence. No evidence has surfaced to suggest otherwise.
But wait, there’s more. So invested is Ásta Ragnheiður in this narrative of the Reykjavík Nine as ‘dangerous terrorists’ that she has made disturbing attempts to influence how they are portrayed in the media, going so far as to hand talking points to members of academia who have dared comment on the subject.
Heed the talking points!
On May 17, Jón Ólafsson, philosopher and Dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences at Bifröst University, was on the morning programme of the state owned Radio One to discuss the various ethical angles of the court case. As he is wont to, Jón was very circumscribed and cautious in his analysis. He sided neither with the protesters nor the state, but pointed out that it was strange that out of all those who ‘attacked’ Alþingi during the winter of 2008-9, only the nine had been singled out and charged with violating the 100th paragraph.
Shortly after the programmeme, Jón received a phone call from Ásta Ragnheiður, who informed him that while she hadn’t actually heard him on the radio, she had been contacted by “numerous people,” who had been very unhappy about how he had talked about the case – and that these people had told her that Jón had gotten critical aspects of the case wrong. She could not identify what exactly he had gotten wrong, but offered to e-mail him a document just to make sure that he wouldn’t get anything wrong in the future. He later received an e-mail from her official Alþingi account.
The Grapevine has acquired a copy of her letter, which reads like simple talking points. These talking points summarize the statements Ásta Ragnheiður had previously made in parliament, complete with the reference to the protesters having entered through the “back door” (again, where every non-official visitor to Alþingi enters the building). The talking points contained nothing new, and corrected nothing Jón had said.
This correspondence should give us pause. Ásta Ragnheiður admitted she had not heard what Jón said, and could therefore not evaluate his arguments, but nevertheless believed she needed to make sure that he was on the same page as The State, sending him governmental talking points on the case. Just to make sure.
Stifling critical discourse
In her e-mail Ásta Ragnheiður evokes the conclusions of the SIC report – pointing out that the report had criticised politicians for their attempts to influence the courts: “The tripartite separation of powers is clear. Moreover, the State Prosecutor is independent in his duties and is not supposed to receive orders from MPs. The conclusions of the SIC report single out for harsh criticism how politicians have in the past attempted to influence the judiciary system.”
True. But the SIC report also criticises politicians for their repeated attempts to stifle critical discourse, and members of the academia for having been too subservient to members of the political elite, for having been too willing to recite government talking points.
Maybe Ásta Ragnheiður missed that part of the report.
Because Ásta Ragnheiður appears to see nothing wrong with calling up respected members of Iceland’s academia to complain that they are not being supportive enough when the state decides to engage in political persecution against protesters, going so far as to send out government talking points just to make sure that everybody is on the same page.
To top this off, Ásta Ragnheiður sees nothing wrong with making these kinds of phone calls without actually knowing what she’s talking about. Jón Ólafsson confirms that she did in fact say that she had not heard the programme herself, but was relying on what others had told her. She would not identify who these people were. All of this raises doubts about her judgement, as well as serious questions about professional conduct.
Everyone should be equal
Those who have taken the hard-line approach in this matter, supporting Ásta Ragnheiður’s view that the Reykjavík Nine be prosecuted to the full extent of the law – and convicted of a crime that carries a maximum sentence of life in prison – have evoked enlightenment ideals to support their view: the rule of law, the ideal of the Rechtsstaat, the tripartite separation of powers, as well as the importance of respecting the independence and integrity of institutions like Alþingi. Ásta Ragnheiður has even gone so far as to cite the SIC report.
Although they appear more as disciples of Rousseau than Montesquieu, the Reykjavík Nine and their supporters – including the 705 who signed the petition/mass confession – have also cited enlightenment ideals. Their main argument is that in the fall of 2008 the social contract between the government and the governed had been broken. The government and Alþingi, through their utter incompetence had forfeited the trust of the people – abrogated their end of the social contract. Hence the chant of the pots and pans uprising: “Incompetent government!” and the “declaration” one of the Reykjavík Nine managed to read to Alþingi on December 8: “This house no longer serves its purpose!” followed by the poetic exhortation: “Get the fuck out!”
Through their demands that they, too, be charged with the crimes the Reykjavík Nine are being accused of, the 705 signatories to the petition are also demanding that Ásta Ragnheiður see to it that one of the key ideals of the enlightenment be honoured, that Iceland be a Rechtsstaat – that the rule of law be applied in a fair and even manner: everyone guilty of the same crime should face the same charges.