From Iceland — 2011: The Year In News

2011: The Year In News

Published January 16, 2012

2011: The Year In News

This was a pretty big year in the news for a number of reasons, and while we don’t have the space to cover everything we found cool or interesting, there were a number of important stories that deserve mentioning.
The year started off optimistically enough on the Icesave front. In January, most Icelanders supported the third Icesave deal. The blogging world, while still grumbling, appeared to grudgingly concede that it wasn’t half bad. Even Independence Party chair Bjarni Benediktsson came out in favour of it. In the end, a parliamentary majority passed the Icesave deal.
Finally, we thought, we can get this baby put to bed.
How wrong we were. We had made the mistake of overlooking the president, who ended up vetoing the law—referring it to referendum—as he had done with the previous Icesave agreement. While the government stalled in trying to convince the public to vote ‘Yes,’ bloggers and special interest groups switched into high gear in trying to convince the public to vote ‘No.’ In the end, the public didn’t need much convincing, as an overwhelming majority voted against the deal.
Things slumped along until November, when the Supreme Court ruled that the ‘emergency law’ of 2008 would be upheld, and that funds from the Old Landsbanki should pay up the Icesave debt, and in fact the first payment was made to the UK and Holland. We breathed a sigh of relief—payments have started! Surely, this time, we can safely say that the Icesave matter is finally over, yes?
No. The European Free Trade Association (EFTA) summoned the country to court, on account of waiting three years to begin returning bank deposits to people wanting to withdraw their money from their accounts, which is  sort of probably against international law (don’t worry, though—their governments covered their deposits in the meantime). And so the Icesave issue left 2011 with the prospect that Iceland would have to appear in court, and might very well incur penalties for these delays. Rats.
Most of Iceland’s non-recycled refuse is incinerated. While not in itself especially green, it also never occurred to anyone that it would be especially dangerous, either. All that changed when milk in the Westfjords was measured as having 20 times the acceptable amount of dioxin—a toxin that was used to make the notorious Vietnam War-era herbicide Agent Orange. After further investigation, it was discovered that the source of the toxin was emissions from a nearby garbage incinerator. This got the ball rolling for further investigations, with high dioxin levels also found near incinerators in the Westman Island and in Kirkjubæjarklaustur.
It was also reported that there were traces of dioxin in lamb meat, some of it already sold domestically and for export. As the public demanded answers, the Ministry for the Environment closed or limited the hours of the incinerators, and later found that dioxin levels—while certainly higher than originally thought—were not high enough to cause permanent damage to people.

Icelandic member of parliament for The Movement ended up making international news when the US Department of Justice filed an injunction against Twitter, demanding they hand over the private messages of a few people linked to Wikileaks, among them Birgitta Jónsdóttir. Twitter was kind enough to let Birgitta know what was up and, true to form, she did not take the matter sitting down. Refusing to hand over her private exchanges, she got in touch with an American legal team.
Minister for Foreign Affairs Össur Skarphéðinsson told RÚV that he intended to fight “tooth and nail” for Birgitta, and considered Birgitta’s treatment by US authorities “unacceptable.”
The matter has since been hit with two rulings in federal court in favour of the DoJ, but at the time of writing, it is uncertain if an appeal will be made to the US Supreme Court.
One of the more farcical legal proceedings to happen in Iceland this year was the trial of the so-called Reykjavík Nine: nine protesters who attempted to enter parliament in December 2008, but ended up in a scuffle with police. The nine were charged with trying to force their way into parliament and with assaulting police officers, although video footage seemed to contradict police testimony of events. Reykjavík District Court was often packed with supporters and press alike. It came to light that while security guards gave conflicting testimony of events, they had accidentally taped over much of the footage of the altercation.
In the end, Andri Leó Lemarquis was sentenced to a four-month suspended sentence, Þór Sigurðsson was sentenced to a 60-day suspended sentence, and Sólveig Anna Jónsdóttir and Steinunn Gunnlaugsdóttir were each sentenced to pay 100.000 ISK in fines. The remaining five were found not guilty. Andri received his sentence for allegedly biting a police officer and pushing a security guard, while Þór’s sentence was for holding the door of parliament open.
Equally farcical as the Reykjavík Nine trial, albeit in a different way, former Prime Minister Geir H. Haarde was officially charged with negligence and mismanagement for his part in contributing to the collapse of the Icelandic economy. The parliamentary vote to charge Geir was close—33 votes to 30—and Geir professed his innocence many times, stating that he was the victim of both a global recession and being kept deliberately in the dark by the Central Bank. Going on the offensive, he called the trial “political persecution” and a “vendetta” initiated by former political opponents.
While the latest Gallup poll on the matter shows most Icelanders are against the trial, it continues to wear on. However, a proposal from the Independence Party—from which Geir hails—that has called for the trial to end has seen support from members of the ruling coalition. At the time of writing, it is still uncertain if the trial even has a future, let alone if a conviction will result.
One of the more exciting consequences of the Pots and Pans Revolution was the notion that we should re-write our constitution—probably a good idea, as the one we have now is more or less a copy/paste job of the Danish one from nearly a century ago. The idea was that the people in charge of writing the new constitution would be regular folks like you and me, who were not in office. A lot of well-known Icelanders were voted in, but then complaints were filed which challenged the legality of the elections. The Supreme Court found the numerous election laws were broken, and so the election itself was ruled invalid. The office of the Prime Minister wasn’t daunted, and last February, decided that they would simply appoint those who won the election to the position of being on the committee. While the committee has been toying with a number of proposed changes to the constitution, soliciting suggestions from the general public, an actual brand new constitution is still a ways away.
Where Eyjafjallajökull was the star of 2010, two volcanic events marked this year—Grímsvötn and Vatnajökull, within about two months of each other. Last May, Grímsvötn erupted, sending heavy plumes of ash across south Iceland, a great deal of it even making its way west to Reykjavík, with the plume reaching a maximum height of about 20km and reaching as far afield as central Russia. No deaths, injuries, or severe destruction of property and livestock were reported, although the ash did take a long time to clean up.
Two months later, a minor volcanic disturbance under the Vatnjökull glacier caused a flash flood, which wiped out a bridge in south Iceland. As this happened during the height of the tourist season, there were worries that we would see a repeat of 2010, when the Eyjafjallajökull eruption put a dent in the tourist industry, one of Iceland’s more lucrative sources of revenue. However, quick-working civil engineers managed to get the bridge repaired in an astonishing two weeks. Again, no deaths or injuries were reported. In your face, Earth!

If Magma Energy was the shady foreign investor of 2010, Huang Nubo must surely define 2011. A Chinese investor who has worked in the tourist industry both at home and broad, he also has a reputed love of Iceland. And plenty of well-connected links to the country, too: he’s good friends with Hjörleifur Sveinbjörnsson, the husband of former Foreign Minister Ingibjörg Sólrún Gísladóttir. Huang Nubo and Hjörleifur have apparently been friends for a long time, and it has been reported that during a visit to Iceland last year, Foreign Minister
Össur Skarphéðinsson lent him a ministry car to be shown around the country.
Last August, Huang said he was interested in buying the northeast Icelandic farm Grímsstaðir á Fjöllum, for the purpose of building a luxury hotel and golf course there. This resulted in a great public backlash, with plenty of people sceptical of his intentions and business practices. In the end, the Minister of the Interior denied his request to be granted an exception to Icelandic law, which forbids non-Scandinavians from buying land. It is reported that Huang could be looking for other ways to invest in Iceland’s tourist industry, but for now it seems his interest in the country has waned.
December was a big month for changes in Icelandic leadership. First off, Bishop of Iceland Karl Sigurbjörnsson announced that he would not run again for the position of bishop, and that early elections for the post would be held. Throughout the year, there had been calls for him to step down in light of the church investigation findings that he hid evidence implicating a previous bishop who had committed sexual abuse against, among other people, his own daughter. Karl refused to step down and maintained that he was innocent of any wrongdoing, but his decision to not run again and hold early elections may indicate a change of heart.
Government ministries once again combined, this time forming nine in total, most of them run by women—an Icelandic first. The ministries of Fisheries, Agriculture, Business and the Economy—as well as parts of the Ministry of Industry—combined into a new ministry, the Ministry of Employment, which is headed by Leftist-Green chair Steingrímur J. Sigfússon. Oddný Harðardóttir took over as Minister of Finance, and the Ministry for the Environment and the Ministry of Industry combined to form the Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources. However, this meant that now-former Minister of Economics and Business Árni Páll Árnason and Minister of Fisheries and Agriculture Jón Bjarnason lost their posts.
On the very first day of 2012—capping off 2011 in classic style—President Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson addressed the nation, saying that he did not believe he would run for another term, saying that to leave would give him the freedom to speak more freely and focus more on issues dear to his heart. This would bring to an end 16 years in office, and would certainly be a fine time to depart: much of 2011 has involved the president in one way or the other, so perhaps he wants to end his career on a high note. But as his statement has been considered open-ended, he might end up running for office after all. Only 2012 will tell for sure. 

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