Icelanders were recently shocked and appalled to learn that Icelandic airline Air Atlanta had made dozens of trips, from eastern Europe to Saudi Arabia, delivering many weapons of war to that country, including the internationally-banned landmines. This was done with the knowledge and the permission of the Icelandic Transport Authority. The matter was brought to light by Kveikur, an investigative news show for public broadcasting network RÚV.
While public outrage was high, and both the Icelandic Transport Authority and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs have both defended the practice but said they would be changing regulations, Ástþór Magnússon—a long-time peace activist and perennial presidential candidate—actually brought this matter to light in 2002. For his troubles, he was arrested, interrogated, and then mercilessly vilified in the media.
It all starts in Prague
In November 2002, NATO held a summit in Prague. The hot topic at the time was forming the “coalition of the willing” in the run-up to invade Iraq. Amongst those in attendance were Davíð Oddsson and Halldór Ásgrímsson, who were the Prime Minister and Foreign Minister of Iceland at the time. Davíð and Halldór offered tactical support for the invasion, which Ástþór said included using Air Atlanta passenger planes to “carry troops and weapons to the Middle East”.
This wasn’t some closely guarded secret deal made behind closed doors, either. Icelandic news reported on the day of the summit that the companies Flugleiðir (now Stoðir) and Atlanta had made a deal with the Icelandic government to rent out their planes to NATO for military transport. Davíð told Morgunblaðið at the time, “I hope that these services will not have to be used often, preferably never.”
This deeply troubled Ástþór. He sent an email to several airlines, all the media outlets in Iceland and several overseas, to all Icelandic police stations, and to all ministries and MPs, saying that by using Icelandic passenger aircraft fleet for carrying weapons and troops, “we could expect that an attack would be launched against these aircraft, because by doing this, they were changing the role of these airlines from being a civil organisation to being a part of a war machine. And then we become a legitimate target for attack by the other party.” And that’s where things got complicated.
“Within four hours, I was in jail,” Ástþór told us. “I was in solitary confinement for several days, constantly being interrogated.” Charged under an anti-terrorism law that was passed in the wake of 9/11, his offices were raided and his computers and other files were seized, and held for two years. Ástþór says he learned from someone close to the Prime Minister that the order had come from his office.
Objections from around the world began to pour in. After about a week, Ástþór was released, but he didn’t come out unscathed. Numerous media outlets poured scorn and ridicule on him, calling him “the village idiot”. Political cartoons were drawn mocking him. But he remained steadfast.
“I said I will eat my hat if you find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq,” he said. “And I’ve never had to eat my hat.”
The hypocrisy of Parliament
“When I heard they were talking about this latest case in Parliament, I just thought it was so hypocritical,” he tells us. “There are people in Parliament who know very well what’s been going on.”
Since news of the Air Atlanta weapons shipments broke, the Icelandic Transport Authority at first went on the defensive, arguing that the shipments were legal because they were not flying weapons directly into a war zone (just adjacent to one). However, Minister of Foreign Affairs has offered assurances, first by denying a permit for another flight that had been submitted shortly before news broke, and then saying that such permit applications will go to the Ministry rather than the Transport Authority.
Ástþór is not very impressed with the government response so far, believing that it simply does not go far enough.
“I think it is ridiculous,” he says. “First of all, Iceland should not be a part of any kind of military operation. Second, it should be absolutely illegal for civilian passenger aircraft to be fitted out to get involved in this. I think the response to all of this should be ‘no Icelandic aircraft should be carrying weapons or participating in any war.’ We are putting innocent people in mortal danger.”