From Iceland — Too Huge For A Monument

Too Huge For A Monument

Published August 19, 2011

Too Huge For A Monument

When Helgi Hóseasson passed away two years ago, he had since the 1930s fought a harsh fight to get the National Church to revoke the baptismal covenant that was forced upon him as an infant in 1919. Using a vast variety of methods—from draining all possible juridical channels, including the European Court of Human Rights, to throwing traditional Icelandic dairy product skyr on the Icelandic power elite—Helgi was systematically denied his simple demand, but was instead met with repeated arrests and forced to spend time at a mental hospital, along with other forms of humiliation. All on offer by the state power—glued together with the words of former bishop Sigurbjörn Einarsson—was that by a proper examination no one can doubt the existence of God.
Following his death, a few thousand people signed a petition for the construction of a monument on a street corner in Reykjavík where Helgi often demonstrated his highly anarchic ideology on religion, the Church and State. The monument was built, but his struggle—which highlighted, analysed and deconstructed the superpower of the State over all breathing life, from its first day to the last—was gone. The news of his death recalled a question, asked by an outraged viewer of ‘Iceland’s Protester,’ a documentary about Helgi—a question still as relevant today: Why were the authorities not willing to meet with his demand?
That same question awoke recently when Sævar Ciesielski, one of the defendants in Iceland’s most historical criminal court case, passed away. In 1977 Sævar, then 25 years old, was sentenced to lifelong imprisonment (which was three years later scaled down to 17 years), for the murder of two men named Guðmundur and Geirfinnur (both Einarsson, but not related at all). The two of them were actually never proven to be dead at all, let alone murdered, but both disappeared within ten months in 1974. Sævar and several other young people were soon accused of responsibility for the alleged murders and were, before the actual trials, isolated (Sævar for 106 weeks) and tortured by the Icelandic State.
This treatment,―which included sleep deprivation, submersion of the head in water, beatings, threats, medication and, in the case of the only woman accused, sexual violence, eventually led to several confessions, a well-known result within the science of juridical torture. But as the bulk of them were soon withdrawn, as well as the majority of witness statements, the Icelandic authorities imported a German pensioner named Karl Schütz, who before retiring had served as an investigative police officer who specialised in State security. He was asked to tie the knots in a way that, according to his own words when back in Germany, saved Iceland’s government from toppling. “A national nightmare has been averted,” said juridical minister Ólafur Jóhannesson early in 1977, following Schütz’s announcements about the mystery having been “solved.” Yet the sentences to follow were based on the withdrawn confessions alone.
Sævar spent nine years in prison before being released. On the exact day when 17 years had passed, he and his lawyer, Ragnar Aðalsteinsson—who still today is Iceland’s most ambitious human rights lawyer—turned in thousands of pages of content, the work of a whole year, asking the High Court to pronounce the rehearing of the whole case. To shorten a long and complicated story: The court ruled against their wishes, arguing that no “new source material” had been provided, athwart Sævar’s and Ragnar’s arguments that the extensive concept of “new source material” not only applied to actual evidence concerning the two Einarssons’ alleged murders but also material that touches on new material concerning guilt and innocence, new interpretation of already existing material, information about the condition when confessions were made and the illegitimacy of the case’s research methods—only to mention a few of them. Sævar’s demands—to quote his own words: “to be freed of the accusations and compensated the humiliation he went through”—were never met but instead passed away beside him.
Following the news of Sævar’s death, a very understandable anger has arisen. Many people ask themselves the rightful question why his case was never taken up and some have encouraged the current Minister of the Interior to rehear the case now. For certain this would be to honour the memory of Sævar, and not only his memory but also his and Ragnar’s passionate work, aimed towards a situation where the word “justice” would maybe gain an actual meaning. Rehearing the case now, in the shadow of Sævar’s demise, would at the same time stand on a thin line between justice on the one hand, and demagogy and populism on the other. It is always easier to fight someone’s cause when that same one is not among us any more—and it is always easy to build monuments. But whose would the monument be? Sævar’s or the State’s?
During parliamentary debate in October 1998, when Davíð Oddsson, then-Prime Minister (later Central Bank director, now editor of Morgunblaðið newspaper), asked for the case to receive proper treatment, as it would be very hard for “us” to live with such a “miscarriage of justice.” These are strong words, but note that they were said after the Supreme Court’s decision, which Davíð Oddsson stated had been a personal disappointment to him. Nothing ever happened; the Icelandic State did not treat the case properly, but Davíð built himself a monument so huge that now, when the case is discussed, people mention that “even he” wanted it to be reheard in court.
Let’s say that this would happen and the whole case would be reheard, taking into account new evidence, information about the torture and so forth. It is not unlikely that the court would come to another conclusion than it did thirty years ago. This would then again affect the history books and free five individuals from a horrible judgment. But a clear conclusion lies already in front of us, namely that these young people were picked out and arrested, tortured and forced to confess, sentenced and imprisoned, and finally refused rehearing—all this by the one and the same State. Rehearing might result in the pardoning of these people but this pardoning would come from the same State responsible for the whole affair. More importantly the pardon would be too late for Sævar Ciesielski. This conclusion may not be forgotten because it brings forth the essence of the State, sharply articulated in between words in the already mentioned question: Why can the State not meet with the demands of their own victims like Helgi Hóseasson and Sævar Ciesielski?  
Entailed in that question is the idea that not only should the State apologise and compensate their victims but also learn from its wrongdoings and not do them again. But then another question arises: if it actually is in the nature of the State Powers to apologise and undergo fundamental changes. Judging by Sævar’s case, the answer is no. A good example is the career of Valtýr Sigurðsson, a lawyer who was in charge of the investigation that finally led to Sævar’s imprisonment. After his work as an agent of Keflavík’s town sheriff, he was awarded with one good job after another, as a district judge, town sheriff, director of the prison and probation authority, and finally in 2007 as the State Prosecutor. As State Prosecutor, he stated things such as that victims of rape should go beyond ‘freezing and staying passive when being raped,’ because in court it would not be ‘recognised as a ‘proper protest.’ Nevertheless Valtýr enjoyed this job until early this year when he retired in great style.
And this seems to be a standard. When Chinese president Jiang Zemin officially visited Iceland in 2002, members and supporters of Falun Gong—a spiritual movement whose members have systematically been persecuted by the Chinese authorities—flocked to Iceland to protest. By request of the Chinese, the Icelandic authorities drew a plan to keep even the tiniest opposition away from the President’s eyes, meaning that Falun Gong members were to begin with given certain free-speech-zones in Reykjavík but later denied arrival and kept imprisoned in a school close to the Keflavík airport. Icelandair was handed a list of people not to be let on board to Iceland and particular hotel guests were kicked out of their rooms in Reykjavík. The one officer mostly in charge of the execution of this plan, Stefán Eiríksson, who was then the Ministry of Justice’s office manager, was later rewarded with an even higher position that he still serves today, as the police commissioner of Reykjavík capital area. Now, a little less than a decade later, Iceland’s authorities have apologised to Falun Gong—building themselves a monument for history, which anyway does not alter any of the already performed violations.
Sævar Ciesielski once stated that in a state governed by law, admitting juridical mistakes should not be a source of embarrassment. But not everybody would agree that Sævar’s and the other defendants’ imprisonment was a mistake. In his recent biography, entitled ‘November 19,’ former detective Haukur Guðmundsson states that the sentences were ruled against innocent people, meaning that the case is still today completely unsolved. Questioning the reason for the High Court’s decisions not to rule in favour of the case’s rehearing, says Haukur, leads one back to the protection of the State’s interests. Ironically, this former police officer has answered the question above: The State’s interests stand in the way of fundamental changes. And without detailing those interests, it is certain that people like Sævar Ciesielski, Helgi Hóseasson and Ragnar Aðalsteinsson do not come under that category. Full success in their struggles would create a rip in the concrete wall of State Power—too huge for any demagogic monument to ever fill.

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