The Grapevine caught up with Ragnheiður Freyja Kristínardóttir and Jórunn Edda Helgadóttir, the Icelanders who were arrested yesterday for trying to stop the deportation of Eze Okafor. As reported, the two attempted to elicit the support of other passengers on the plane taking Eze to Sweden, but were arrested soon thereafter. Ragnheiður and Jórunn share what happened, how the police treated them, and why this case matters.
What was the mood when you saw this letter from the Immigration Appeals Board that they felt Eze could no longer be deported?
Jórunn: This decision from them made us very happy, because it could only be read to mean he wouldn’t be deported on the grounds of the Dublin Regulation, which had been hanging over his head for four years. This was finally supposed to be over. We were all very hopeful. But when we got news that UTL wasn’t going to abide by this decision … we just don’t know what to make of it, really. The point is UTL’s perspective at this point shouldn’t matter because the Appeals Board is the higher authority in this matter.
Ragnheiður: It was quite shocking to see because we were trusting that the Appeals Board would be the highest authority in these cases. I don’t think we even thought of the possibility of a lower authority going against that or saying something different after this decision had been made.
J: And of course, this goes beyond Eze. This is an authority going against the rule of law and legal procedures in Iceland. And if we let them get away with that, I’m not sure what devastating effect that might have on our whole system.
Tell me about your experience on the plane itself.
J: It was difficult. It was disappointing. At the same time, it was also somewhat understandable. The crowd on the plane was largely older people, and they had already been waiting on their delayed flight for a while, and if they had acted, they would have caused the flight to be delayed more. But for us, who know the case of Eze and what’s going on, that seems very, very minimal in comparison to Eze being sent back to Nigeria.
R: I think we got out the story pretty well, though. While Jórunn was being held down, I managed to keep speaking for at least 10 minutes about Eze’s history and the situation. I think even sadder for me is that the empathy of others might be there, but people feel powerless against the system. That people feel obligated to just stand by and not do anything because they feel powerless or that they can’t take a stance because it won’t change anything.
Where were you when the police arrived?
J: I was being held down by flight crew, and some man who seemed like a passenger but was maybe a part of the crew, because he participated a lot in trying to get me off the plane. The crew on the plane got a lot more physically aggressive quicker than I expected.
How many police showed up?
R: When Jórunn was being held on the floor, I was still standing in my seat talking to people when two of them came to take me, and four of them went to Jórunn.
So they took you from the plane …
R: That’s where they arrested us; outside of the plane, on the platform of the stairs. We were put down on the ground, and our hands were pulled up our backs. As they were handcuffing me, I asked if I was being arrested, they said yes, and when I asked why, I was told I was being arrested because I was in the area illegally. Then we were taken down the stairs, and there were a lot of police.
J: There were at least 12 officers all together. They used way more force than was needed. First on the platform, where they were holding our shoulders and upper backs to the ground, while pulling our hands away from our bodies, with our wrists cuffed behind our backs. Then they took us down the stairs, and kept doing the same, which was very painful. One of the cops said, “Get her behind the car. She’s on camera here.” So they took me behind the car and kept pulling my hands up behind my back.
Did they say anything to you?
R: They said very little. At one point, they had us seated next to each other and kept telling us to calm down. That they would not have to use violence if we would calm down. But they were already being quite violent, so that seemed strange.
J: After they strapped me in with a seat belt, they kept pulling on it, really hard. So I was trying to loosen it, and they kept telling me to calm down. All I was trying to do was loosen the grip of the belt.
Where did they take you?
J: They took us in separate cars to the police station in Keflavík. I kept trying to get an answer to what I was being arrested for and where I was being taken. I got very unclear answers on what I was being charged with. I kept telling them they should read me my rights, which they didn’t do until about an hour after we had been put into a cell. After they read me my rights, it seemed they had no intention to act on them. Because you have the right to contact a family member or friend if you’ve been arrested, and they would not allow either of us to do that. We were never allowed to contact any family or friends.
R: When I asked for my phone call, they told me I wouldn’t be allowed to make it until I had been interrogated. I could not get information on when I was going to be interrogated. I was bleeding, I had blood all over my hand. I was told that a doctor would be coming later in the day. But then they told me later on that I had refused to see a doctor, which is not true. The doctor never came.
J: They kept telling us they would contact the lawyers we asked to be contacted, but they didn’t contact the lawyers until about five and a half hours into our detention. And by that point, neither of the lawyers that we wanted were able to make it, so we were forced to accept lawyers that had been called by the police. Random people that we don’t know.
How long were the two of you in custody?
J: According to the police, I was arrested at 9:15, and she was arrested at 9:25, but she was arrested about a minute before me. I was interrogated before her, and I was free some time before 16:00.
R: I was released about forty five minutes after her, so for me it was around seven hours in custody.
J: While we were in our cells, we were told that if we needed to go to the bathroom, to just knock on the door. So one time I knocked on the door for about half an hour, and nobody showed up. It was maybe an hour, an hour and a half before someone came to let me go to the bathroom.
R: I had the same experience. I knocked and knocked and knocked, used a bell they said was working, knocked some more, and no one came until after a long while.
How long did the interrogations last?
R: They actually made fun of my interrogation, as being the shortest one they ever took. The interrogation itself was very short, because we chose not to comment on anything.
After you were released, how were you able to get back into town?
J: My mom had actually came by the police station. But it wasn’t because police had contacted her. She came by the police station because she had seen the news.
So your mother learned about your arrest from the news; not the police?
J: Yes. Nobody had contacted her. None of our friends or family were ever contacted on our behalf by the police, which is supposed to be our right.
Why does Eze’s case matter?
J: There’s several reasons for it. One of them is to raise awareness of these inhumane deportations of people who have their lives here, or want to have their lives here. We have no good reason whatsoever to deport them. Another one is UTL is willing to break the law and work against legal procedures in order to have their way and serve their policy, which I don’t completely understand. While we have an inherently flawed system, we should still be able to count on the few positive decisions we get out of it. I would like to mention that there are two men, asylum seekers, who have cases very similar to Eze’s. UTL has decided to examine their cases. We see no reason whatsoever for a different decision to be made in Eze’s case. But that’s the reality.
R: The highest authority in this case is the Appeals Board. We can’t trust them, and we can’t trust the lower authority, either, if they’re taking the power in their own hands. It seems like a total lack of any professionalism.
J: And this is also interesting in light of a comment made by the UTL Director on television recently, when she said that they’re “just following the law”. But we’ve seen for years that that’s not the case. This makes it very clear that there is definitely an agenda there.
R: When the Minister of the Interior says she doesn’t understand a lot about immigration issues, I think that says a lot about our level of professionalism when it comes to immigration matters.