Samherji CEO Þorsteinn Már Baldvinsson has temporarily stepped down from his post, RÚV reports, while investigations are being conducted in the wake of the revelations being brought to light by the Fishrot Files—an exposé by Wikileaks and numerous media outlets showing how the Icelandic fishing giant bribed Namibian officials to secure massive fishing quotas, and then transferred the earnings from them to a shell company in the Marhsall Islands, a tax haven.
Bryndís Kristjánsdóttir, the director of Iceland’s tax office, has recently received documentation from the Namibia government, RÚV reports. While she would not go into specifics about what this documentation contains, it is probably safe to assume it has something to do with Samherji.
The response amongst Icelandic politicians has been mixed, ranging from outrage to downplaying to dismissal.
The fishing minister
Of special attention in the government right now is Kristján Þór Júlíusson, the Minister of Fisheries. He was himself the managing director of Samherji some 19 years ago, but is also a life-long friend of Þorsteinn. In an interview with RÚV, Kristján confirmed two important details that have drawn criticism.
The first is that, when news of the Fishrot Files broke, he called Þorsteinn personally to see how he was feeling about the whole thing. When asked about the appropriateness of this phone call, Kristján contended that the purpose of the call was to “encourage the company to come forward and testify about their role in this awful matter.”
One of the other revelations brought to light in the Fishrot Files was that, in 2014, he went to the main offices of Samherji at the behest of Þorsteinn and met some of the Namibian officials implicated in the scheme. He contends that he had no idea why they were at this office.
Despite all this, Kristján will be remaining at his post, offering assurances that if any case related to Samherji crosses his desk, he will recuse himself. However, Social Democrat MP Helga Vala Helgadóttir told reporters that he should recuse himself from his post altogether while investigations into Samherji are conducted. Kristján has given no indication that he will do any such thing.
“The myth of Iceland’s innocence is dead”
Parliament began an open discussion about corruption in Iceland, RÚV reports, at the behest of Pirate MP Smári McCarthy.
Numerous members of the oppositions parties—including Social Democrat MP Oddný G. Harðardóttir, Reform Party MP Hanna Katrín Friðriksson and Pirate MP Halldóra Mogensen—called upon Kristján yesterday to answer extemporaneous questions in Parliament about the Samherji matter, with Halldóra driving the point home by declaring that “the myth of Iceland’s innocence is dead”. Kristján told reporters that he would absolutely answer their questions, and Parliamentary President Steingrímur J. Sigfússon says a time slot will be open for those discussions, albeit after the second round of debates about the budget is finished.
Reform Party chair Þorgerður Katrín Gunnarsdóttir characterised the Fishrot Files revelations as “striking information”, adding, “We need to examine what we can do, changing the system in this country.”
Like many Icelandic companies, large and small, Samherji has donated money to political parties in Iceland. The fact that these are the same politicians who decide how much fishing companies should be taxed has raised criticism from the general public for many years now, and the Fishrot Files revelations have fanned those flames.
Amongst those parties were the Social Democrats, who have reportedly received some 1.6 million ISK from Samherji over the course of 14 years. Logi Einarsson, the chair of the Social Democrats, told reporters that the party as a whole has decided to donate the entire amount to SOS Children’s Villages in Namibia.
Downplaying and denial
The response from members of the Independence Party, including two government ministers, has focused more on deflection and denial than it has had to do with accepting responsibility.
Minister of Foreign Affairs Guðlaugur Þór Þórðarson, for example, felt it important to emphasise to reporters that the Samherji matter has nothing to do with the Icelandic government’s work in Namibia, which concluded in 2010. He added that Samherji and the Foreign Ministry have never worked together on any particular projects, and that he is not particularly worried that the Fishrot Files will negatively impact Iceland’s reputation.
Other politicians have decided to blame Namibia for the bribes that Samherji paid out.
“Corruption in these countries, that’s perhaps the root of the problem in this particular case,” Finance Minister Bjarni Benediktson told television station Stöð 2. “A weak government, a corrupt government in this country. That seems to be the underlying problem that we’re seeing crop up now.”
Another Independence Party MP, Sigríður Á Andersen—who, ironically enough, resigned last from her post last March in the wake of a European Court of Human Rights ruling that her appointment of four judges to Iceland’s Court of Appeals in 2017 had violated European law—nonetheless felt fully qualified to comment on the corruption in other countries, writing on her blog that her take on the Fishrot Files revelations was that it “painted a dark picture of the demands that Namibian officials make in order to fish in that country[‘s waters].”
Namibian authorities have responded much faster to the news than Icelandic authorities have. The Namibian Sun reported yesterday that President Hage Geingob vowed to fire both Minister of Fishing Bernard Esau and Justice Minister and former attorney general Sacky Shangala in the wake of these revelations. Shortly thereafter, the Sun tweeted that they have both resigned.
Furthermore, the editorial staff of The Namibian have gone a step further, arguing that President Geingob needs to do more.
“No amount of firing of ministers and convicting top officials will fix the looting of state resources, unless loopholes in the system are closed,” the staff write in part, concluding: “What’s needed is the will to act. President Geingob should stop claiming that corruption is not systemic. In this former South West Africa, corruption is firmly entrenched through several laws and policies. It is systemic, and the looters are getting more and more sophisticated to enrich themselves at the expense of many ordinary Namibians.”
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