From Iceland — Unfinished Business for Parliament

Unfinished Business for Parliament

Published October 2, 2005

Unfinished Business for Parliament

Last month, Thelma Ásdísardóttir appeared in interviews with Morgunblaðið and Kastljós respectively. Her interview put the issues of domestic violence and sexual abuse firmly in the media spotlight. Ásdísardóttir, a victim of domestic sexual abuse at the hands of her father, openly shared her story with the nation in hope of giving others who share her experience the courage to come forward and seek help.
Her hopes may have materialized, as assistant state prosecutor Ragnheiður Harðardóttir claimed there had been a noticeable increase in sexual offense charges made following the interviews with Ásdísardóttir and the public discussion they generated. But an increase in charges made against sexual offenders should really provoke some questions regarding the Icelandic justice system and its handling of sexual abuse cases.
Statistics from Icelandic police authorities show that out of 65 rape cases reported in 2003, only 16 resulted in actual charges. Only four out of these 65 cases ended with a conviction, a mere 6.2% conviction rate. More than half of 60 cases involving child abuse never resulted in charges. But police statistics only reveal half the story. A vast majority of sexual abuse cases never gets reported to the police. Perhaps a more accurate picture can be drawn by looking at statistics from the University Hospital Rape Emergency Center, where 119 rape cases were reported in 2003. Less than half of these resulted in formal charges.
According to Stígamót’s (a counselling centre for victims of sexual abuse) annual report for the year 2003, a total 331 separate cases were reported from 251 individuals. Only around 10% of these cases were reported to police authorities.
Among the reasons given by victims for not reporting sexual abuse is that they do not want to go through the interrogation process or do not have faith in the justice system, according to research by Stígamót. This distrust in the justice system was made particularly evident in a recent case where the Icelandic Supreme Court awarded an Icelandic woman 1.1 million Icelandic kronur in damages following a private lawsuit against three defendants in a rape case after state prosecutor had decided not to press charges.
These statistics have caught the eye of more than just Icelanders. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) recently criticized Icelandic authorities for the small percentage of cases reported that actually result in charges being made and tried before court, as well as the poor conviction rate. The OHCHR recommends that special training for dealing with sexual abuse cases be implemented for police and court officials.
These facts raise the question of how Icelandic authorities and justice officials view sexual abuse. Interestingly enough, Icelandic laws allow for two separate degrees of rape charges. The definition of rape depends on whether violence, or the threat of violence, is involved or not. It is hard to fathom the idea that non-violent rape actually exists, let alone that it should have a special status within the justice system. The non-violent variation, termed as abuse rather than rape, is designated when the victim is unable to refuse or fight off the attacker or does not fully comprehend the situation due to intoxication, for example. Maximum sentence for abuse is six years, while rape carries a maximum sentence of 16 years.
This difference reflects the old myth that rape victims are responsible for being attacked, or somehow bring it on themselves by careless behaviour, such as dressing provocatively, flirting or talking in sexual terms. It implies that under certain conditions, the attacker is safe to assume consent. This cuts at the heart of a person’s sexual freedom, the person’s right to decide on his or her own who he or she chooses to engage in sexual intercourse with. The onus of the act is not placed on the violation of the victim’s sexual freedom, but becomes a question of procedural technicalities where the victim’s state of consciousness becomes an issue.
Minister of Justice and Independence Party MP, Björn Bjarnason and Minister of Social Affairs and Progressive Party MP Árni Magnússon have both recently announced that changes are about to be made. Bjarnason has appointed a committee for revising the laws on sexual offences and Magnússon has appointed a committee that is supposed to come up with a plan of action for the government against domestic and sexual abuse before March 2006. So all around, committees are being formed, and everybody sounds optimistic that revisions will be made. After all, 2006 is just around the corner, and the inherent double standard in sexual and domestic abuse laws should be history by now.
All of which makes it even harder to forget what happened last spring, when Social Democrat MP Ágúst Ólafur Ágústsson proposed a bill for legislation that would rescind the statue of limitation on sexual abuse crimes against minors. The proposal was never brought before vote in the Parliament, and ended up as one of many unfinished bills from last years Parliament. Let us hope that this time the pressure will prove enough for parliament to actually take action.

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