In a large apartment block in the Árbær suburb, the police gunned down a middle-aged man early morning on December second, 2013. Not only was this the first time the Icelandic police used lethal force, but also the first time they fired a live round in the line of duty. Considering its monumental significance in Icelandic history this incident has received remarkably little attention from the media. The question remains: Was his death truly necessary? Will we ever know for sure?
What we do know
We know that Sævar Rafn Jónasson was in his home on the eve of December second, he had a firearm in his possession and is believed to have started firing shots around one in the morning. Police arrived at the scene two hours later and at six in the morning Sævar was fatally wounded. Very little is known about what happened in those three hours except that it involved 15-20 police officers as well as Iceland’s SWAT team. Sævar fired dozens of shots during this time and two police officers were injured during the siege. The sketchy picture we do have of these events raises a lot of questions. The state prosecutor is expected to release her report on the incident in the coming weeks, which will hopefully shed some light on what happened that night and provide the answers we need.
Is the state prosecutor the right person to determine what happened?
In the meantime, however, we need to ask ourselves whether the current system leaves the police capable of objectively assessing their own actions in this case? Granted, the prosecutor’s office is independent from the main police force, but the two collaborate closely in their functions. The prosecutor formally becomes the directing investigative authority but as of yet there is no information available regarding the composition of the police unit assigned to her during the investigation.
Arguably, many of the officers in her team belong to the same district as those involved. The same goes for the forensic department which investigated the scene—the only forensic department in Iceland is based in Reykjavík, which means that those investigating are the colleagues of the officers involved in the shooting. Their superior, the Reykjavík chief of police, is responsible for investigating Sævar´s background. The officers involved are all still on active duty.
Isn’t it essential that any investigation into the use of lethal force by the State or its agents be impeccable? The question of who should watch the watchmen is not an original one but it still has to be asked: Is it really acceptable that police officers belonging to the same district as those whose acts are under examination be the ones to investigate them?
According to the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) it is not. The Court’s extensive case law elaborates on how Member States of the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR) are expected to conduct what they call an effective investigation into any suspicious death, particularly those caused by state agents. This duty stems from our inherent right to life, guaranteed by Article 2 of the ECHR.
The right to life and what it entails
Article 2 of the European Court of Human Rights (see below) explains that unless death is caused by judicial ruling or the absolute necessity to use force in very restricted circumstances, the right to life is non-derogable. The ECtHR has established certain procedural standards regarding investigations into suspicious deaths as a result of this. In the words of the Court, for an investigation to be “effective” it must be independent, prompt, thorough and subject to public scrutiny.
Independence, according to the Court, entails “not only a lack of hierarchical or institutional connection but also a practical independence.” It follows that an investigation in which evidence is gathered and witnesses questioned by officers belonging to the same force as the officers being investigated is not independent in this sense. The answer to the question of who will watch the watchmen should therefore not be the other watchmen in the city.
Whether the requirement of promptness and thoroughness have been complied with is harder to discern until the prosecutor publishes her report. Thoroughness, according to the Court obliges the state to use all the means at its disposal to establish the true course of events, including autopsy, forensic analysis, interviewing witnesses etc. Promptness is probably the vaguest requirement of them all—it is evaluated on a case by case basis. But what about public scrutiny? News articles on Sævar’s death have been few and far between, focusing mainly on his troubled past, mental problems, substance abuse and how the system failed him. Information from the police and the public prosecutor has been minimal.
What we should be asking
Sævar’s death has raised many questions as to how the system might have failed him during his lifetime. He was repeatedly institutionalised, arrested and he wore his family out with threatening behaviour of which the authorities had been notified but did nothing about. It has brought forth the demand that we re-examine how our welfare system deals with people with mental problems or addictions.
I ask that we also seriously consider installing an independent complaints mechanism for investigations into the police. I also ask that the procedure in these cases be absolutely clear. The obscurity of the current legal framework on police supervision has been criticised by both the Parliamentarian Ombudsman as well as the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture, who both deem it essential that a transparent mechanism for police supervision be put in place. This is not to be taken as an accusation that the prosecutor or the police officers investigating Sævar’s death are biased or that they will not conduct their examination with professionalism. This is to say that when a man dies in these circumstances, the investigation must be beyond reproach.
Thankfully, police authorities appear to agree. Stefán Eiríksson, Reykjavík´s chief of police, recently wrote an article on police oversight in Kjarninn magazine. The article is posed as a response to “voices of criticism” that the current system of police oversight lacks independence. In it, Stefán elaborates on the many ways by which police actions are monitored by a variety of state organs. He then briefly examines the role of the state prosecutor and mentions that some think it unfortunate that an office which works so closely with the police should be the one to investigate their conduct. In conclusion, Stefán states that establishing an independent complaints mechanism is worth considering as it would strengthen trust between the public and the police.
The police chief´s article is a great start in my view and I hope to see his suggestion seriously considered on the parliamentary level. We need a separate organisation to handle cases such as Sævar´s: One governed by accessible procedural guidelines and equipped with a transparent means of receiving complaints from the public. After all, we need to be absolutely certain that Sævar’s death was “absolutely necessary.”
ARTICLE 2 of the European Court of Human Rights (Right to life)
1. Everyone’s right to life shall be protected by law. No one shall be
deprived of his life
intentionally save in the execution of a sentence of a court following
his conviction of a
crime for which this penalty is provided by law.
2. Deprivation of life shall not be regarded as inflicted in
contravention of this Article
when it results from the use of force which is no more than absolutely
(a) in defence of any person from unlawful violence;
(b) in order to effect a lawful arrest or to prevent the escape of a
person lawfully detained;
(c) in action lawfully taken for the purpose of quelling a riot or
Þórhildur Sunna Ævarsdóttir LLM has a degree in International Law of Human Rights and Criminal Justice