Many non-Americans (and a lot of Americans, too) are flummoxed by the US policy whereby convicted felons in some states lose the right to vote, sometimes in perpetuity. To many, it is entirely unfair to disenfranchise someone who has paid their debt to society. In Iceland, everyone can vote, no matter what kind of crime they committed. In fact, Iceland takes things a step further with a little thing called “uppreist æru.” Roughly translated as “restored honour,” it’s a controversial legal procedure whereby, no matter how badly you screwed up or what kind of crime you committed, you can have your reputation wiped clean, in a civil sense, allowing you access not just to basic rights but extensive privileges.
How does it work?
If, for example, you want to run for office or be a lawyer, these professions require by law that you have a spotless reputation. But how can you have a spotless reputation if you’ve already spotted it yourself? Don’t worry; the legal procedure of restored honour can help pave the way. But it’s not simple.
First of all, two to five years needs to have passed since you finished serving your prison sentence. Article 85 of the General Penal Code also specifies that you need to provide “solid evidence” that you’ve been on your best behavior since then. This typically means witness testimony in the form of letters of recommendation from people who can vouch for your good character.
If these conditions are met, the matter is then submitted to the Ministry of the Interior for review. While technically it’s the President of Iceland who grants restored honour, all that is actually required of them is their signature; it’s the ministry that handles the case and decides whether or not to refer it to the President.
What kind of people get it?
Iceland is not a very punitive society. The maximum sentence anyone will ever serve for anything is eighteen years in prison, and in most circumstances, they’ll be up for parole after serving half or even a third of their sentence, if they’ve been on the best behaviour. Even then, maximum sentences are rare, and a stint in prison isn’t going to prevent you from going back to leading a productive life again upon release.
However, for those who want to pursue a career that legally requires a spotless record, restored honour is the way to go for them.
One of the more famous cases in recent history is that of Atli Helgason, a lawyer who was sentenced to sixteen years for manslaughter in 2001. He served ten years of that sentence, and in 2016 he was granted restored honour, because he wanted to be able to return to court in a professional capacity once again.
Another instance where restored honour was applied was in the case of Árni Johnsen, who was an MP for the Independence Party before doing time for theft. In 2006 he applied for restored honour so he could run for Parliament again. However, the President was abroad at the time, and so the matter was instead handled by then-Prime Minister Geir H. Haarde, then-Parliamentary President Sólveig Pétursdóttir and then-Supreme Court President Gunnlaugur Claessen. What raised eyebrows was the fact that Geir and Sólveig were both members of the
same party Árni belonged to. There was talk of special treatment, but ultimately, Árni ran for office, and won his seat.
Then, amazingly, things got worse
Both of these cases brought with them their share of controversy, but neither of them even come close to the case of Róbert Árni Hreiðarsson, who now goes by Robert Downey. In 2007, he was sentenced to three years in prison for having sexually abused at least four teenage girls. He recently sought to have his honour restored so he could practice law again, and this was granted.
This sparked a great deal of anger from the general public in general, not least of all when the Ministry of the Interior declined to disclose the names of those who had vouched for his character. The survivors of his abuse soon came forward, expressing their shock and sadness that Robert had his honour restored.
The details of Robert’s crimes were bad enough. What made matters much worse was Robert’s lawyer, former Supreme Court judge Jón Steinar Gunnlaugsson, who went on the offensive by publicly imploring Robert’s victims to forgive him, advising that they would “feel much better” if they did so. This prompted even more pushback against Robert.
One detail that continues to remain in all this is that Robert has never admitted to, let alone apologised for, the crimes for which he was convicted.
The matter reached a fever pitch when another woman soon came forward, also claiming abuse at Robert’s hands prior to his sentencing. She has pressed charges against him. Where things will go from here remains to be seen.
Why do we have this thing anyway?
The concept of restored honour rests upon those seeking it having repaid their debt to society and demonstrated that they are better people today. As defenders of restored honour will tell you, everyone deserves a chance to own up to their mistakes and get a fresh start in life.
However, Robert has been completely silent during this process, and has done nothing to demonstrate repentance. Indeed, his own lawyer implies it is in fact Robert’s survivors who are the real culprits here, as they continue to speak out against him. No matter how you look at it, Robert’s case certainly tests the limits of restored honour.
One thing, however, is clear: being a lawyer or a member of parliament isn’t a right; it’s a privilege. Privileges are by definition not granted, they are earned, and they can be denied or lost by bad behavior. While some felons in the US have been stripped of the fundamental democratic right to even vote, once-powerful Icelandic men are able to get their privileges back through this curious, and undoubtedly controversial, law on our books.
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