Can an individual degrade a whole nation or nation state? Apparently the answer is “yes” as suggested by the 95th clause of Iceland’s criminal code: “Anyone who publicly degrades a foreign nation or a foreign state, its top official, its head of state, its flag or another authorised national characteristic, the flag of the United Nations or the flag of the Council of Europe, is subjected to penalty or imprisonment up to two years.” Moreover, the law allows for an imprisonment up to six years if the violation is considered that serious.
While this particular clause has not typically been a matter of discussion—as it rarely comes up in courtrooms or public debates—the Left Greens recently put forth a resolution against it, arguing that it is primeval and can be misused to suppress freedom of speech.
The most recent incident
Their resolution comes shortly after the law surfaced in Reykjavík this July. During a relatively big demonstration in protest of the imprisonment of three members of the feminist collective Pussy Riot, the Russian flag was taken down from the Russian Embassy’s flagpole and juggled around by the crowd. In front of that same embassy a month later—more precisely on the day of the Pussy Riot sentence—police made it known that four individuals were under investigation, accused of violating the above-mentioned law.
Prior to this incident, the law was last used in April 2009 when Czech citizen Jan Jiricek was sentenced to pay a 250,000 ISK fine for his act of protest by the Chinese Embassy in Reykjavík. During the trial, Jiricek, who painted the embassy’s stairs with red—an act supported by a written statement sent to most of Iceland’s media—denied having disgraced the Chinese state and nation, admitting only to have physically opposed the Chinese authorities’ treatment of the Tibetan people. Yet his defence didn’t convince the judge who, in his verdict, stated that Jan had clearly degraded the Chinese state and nation.
The most infamous incident
The most famous—and at the same time infamous—example of this law takes us back to the year 1934 when five men, one of them poet Steinn Steinarr, were punished for degrading the German state. The five communists had taken down and trampled on the German Nazi Party’s swastika flag, which was flapping by the German Vice-Consulate in the northern town of Siglufjörður. For this act they received two and three months long prison sentences. Since then, the 95th clause has been widely referred to as the Nazi Clause.
Many recalled this story in 2002 when Iceland’s Supreme Court sentenced and fined three men for degrading the United States of America. In opposition to the superpower’s foreign policy, one of them had prepared a Molotov cocktail—a rarely employed tool of resistance in Iceland—that he threw at the US Embassy in Reykjavík during a short pause in the middle of their Friday night pub-crawl. Four of five judges found the three men guilty while the fifth judge issued a special provision of acquittal, maintaining that the men were under influence of alcohol and thus the Molotov’s political message was dismissed.
The most absurd incident
Finally, the most absurd event based on the clause’s existence took place in 1993 when Þorsteinn Pálsson, then Minister of Fisheries accused Bill Clinton—during an argument between Iceland and the US over the former country’s whaling—of having watched too many mafia films. Seen by the latter state’s authorities as a disgrace to the US state and its nation, Þorsteinn was heavily criticised for his words and some wondered if he had, in fact, violated the Nazi clause. The problem, however, was that it falls under the criminal code’s chapter on treason, a violation which will only be brought to court on the behest of the Minister of Justice. And at this time, the Ministry of Justice was governed by that very same Minister of Fisheries, Þorsteinn Pálsson, who predictably didn’t end up pressing charges against himself.
Now, back to this summer’s events by the Russian Embassy, it will be up to Ögmundur Jónasson, Minister of Interior, to decide if four individuals will be brought to court for treason. Though he certainly is not facing the same situation as Þorsteinn, Ögmundur nevertheless faces the fact that these four people are all members of his very own party, the Left Greens. Additionally, he has officially criticised the sentencing of Pussy Riot, saying to Iceland’s National Broadcasting Service RÚV that despite not wanting to take a stand on the feminists’ conduct, the imprisonment should be discussed within the international human rights debate—and condemned. Whether Ögmundur heeds his party’s warning remains to be seen.