Last night, Icelanders were treated to a group interview on television station Stöð 2 with three of the Kaupthing bankers whose actions were instrumental in bringing down the Icelandic economy in 2008, and are all currently doing time in the Kvíabryggja minimum security prison in Grundarfjörður: former Kaupthing Luxembourg CEO Magnús Guðmundsson, former 10% owner of Kaupthing Ólafur Ólafsson and former Kaupthing Chairperson of the Board Sigurður Einarsson. The interview was a follow-up on recent complaints from the three on what Director of the Icelandic Prison Service Páll Winkel has said about them in the media.
The interview painted the three in a decidedly sympathetic light, which is part and parcel of voices that have arisen in the media that the general public is being unfair to them. Despite all evidence of their wrongdoing, their lenient sentences, practically idyllic living conditions, and – most galling of all – their continued assertions that they did nothing wrong, we are being led to believe that we should feel sorry for them. Meanwhile, pleas for leniency towards people convicted of far less damaging crimes, but are nonetheless facing hard time, fall on deaf ears.
Let us remember what these three men were convicted of. The Supreme Court of Iceland found them guilty of market manipulation and fraud, in part by lending money from Kaupthing to investor Mohammad Bin Khalifa Al-Thani for the express purpose of buying stock in the bank. They artificially inflated the value of the bank, deliberately deceiving investors and depositors alike, until the house of cards came tumbling down, pulling down the rest of us with it. They contributed significantly to an economic collapse that hurt worst of all those of us with no direct stake in the banking system. We watched helplessly as our money plummeted in value but our wages remained stagnant, as being able to pay the rent and put food on the table became a lot more difficult – too difficult for many. Just being able to survive was a real struggle for most of the country.
This catastrophe was real and obvious, and their role in it is plain. And yet, to this day, they maintain their innocence. To quote Magnús from the interview:
“You never expect to end up in prison for working in a bank where you never did anything except protect the interests of the bank and its customers in everything you do. You never, ever expect to end up here.”
In fact, the only mistake these three believe they made was to trust the justice system. Here Ólafur elucidates:
“We made a big mistake, our lawyers and us, in trusting the system. We trusted the courts, and put our trust in the Supreme Court to sentence according to the law. There is our mistake.”
This version of events is, apart from being completely detached from reality, being cheerled by certain voices in the media. RÚV’s annual New Year’s Eve “year in review” sketch comedy show, Áramótaskaupið, made light of Sigurður’s inebriated phone interview shortly after he received his sentence. Many Icelanders condemned the joke as tasteless, and Fréttablaðið printed a column from former Kaupthing managing director Jónas Sigurgeirsson who called the skit “vulgar cruelty”.
Is it unfair to make fun of a man who had a few drinks after being sentenced to go to prison? Perhaps on some level, especially if he had been falsely accused, or had committed a victimless crime. This is certainly not the case where Sigurður is concerned. Let’s also not forget that this man fled the country when investigations were underway, holing up in the UK to avoid answering for his wrongdoing. This is especially important to remember when we consider the case of Mirjam Foekje Van Twuijver.
Mirjam was found guilty last year of taking part in a drug smuggling operation. She cooperated fully with the investigation every step of the way, and the investigation, which has been described as “entrapment”, has been called into question on account of the lead officer in the case being under investigation himself, and on account of general shoddy police work.
Her sentence? 11½ years, just shy of the maximum 12 years for her crime. Each of the three Kaupthing bankers currently sitting in Kvíabryggja (which looks like this, incidentally, while Mirjam could serve her sentence in a place that looks more like this) will be free in about three or four years. Meanwhile, the bankers have filed requests at the prison to be allowed red wine with some of their meals.
One of the more eye-rolling statements made by these bankers came from Ólafur, who said of the critical voices against them, using the language of victims of oppression to refer to high financiers:
“The community is responding to a certain social group. They are subjecting a certain social group to bullying.”
It is insulting to all of us that anyone would tell us we are to feel sorry for the men who actively took part in destroying the economy, who fled investigation, who have denied and continue to deny any wrongdoing, and have the gall to contend that they are being mistreated. That they are receiving a treatment for their crimes that they would not receive in other countries does not make Icelandic society too harsh towards predatory capitalists; it makes other societies too lenient. Being subject to scorn and ridicule is the very least they should have to contend with. Mirjam, and really all of us, are not so fortunate.