From Iceland — Controversial "Article 19" Used Against Activists, Statement Issued

Controversial “Article 19” Used Against Activists, Statement Issued

Published March 9, 2021

Andie Sophia Fontaine
Photo by
Aliya Uteuova

Several Icelandic activists face now face criminal penalties, all of them charged with violating Article 19 of the Law on Police, a controversial law which several Icelandic lawyers the Grapevine has spoken to have pointed out violates both the Icelandic constitution and European human rights laws, for engaging in peaceful protests. The activists in question have issued a joint statement, which can be read below.

The charges stem from two separate peaceful protests. During the first, activists stood outside the Icelandic Parliament with tape over their mouths and their hands in the air on March 19th 2019. Three of them were subsequently arrested. The second protest was a peaceful sit-in held in the lobby of the Ministry of Justice on April 5th of the same year.

In both cases, the accused are charged with violating Article 19, which states, “The public is obliged to obey orders which police give, such as in traffic control or in order to ensure law and order in a public space.”

Icelandic lawyers that the Grapevine spoke with in an extensive investigative feature published last November said that police have sweeping powers to arrest, that courts take a very narrow interpretation of police power at the expense of these protestors, that prosecutors often severely limit or outright restrict defense lawyers’ access to the evidence against their clients, and that appealing these cases has such a high threshold that they can have a chilling effect—all of this sometimes in breach of the Icelandic constitution and European human rights laws.

This article has been used by the police to justify arresting people participating in peaceful protests—something which is supposed to be protected by Articles 73 and 74 of Iceland’s constitution. Helga Baldvins Bjargardóttir, one of the lawyers Grapevine spoke to, also pointed out that Article 19 does not carry any of the exceptions explicitly detailed in Articles 5 and 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

“I don’t think the ECHR would justify the way the police acted in that [refugees] protest [in front of Parliament], and also when they were protesting within the Ministry of Justice,” she told us. “What the court looks at is: was the protest peaceful? If it was peaceful, then it’s protected.”

Sigrún Ingibjörg Gísladóttir, a lawyer at the law offices of Réttur, when asked if the courts just look at ‘was a police order given and was it obeyed?’, replied, “I think that’s a fair assessment of some recent cases I have looked at from the District Courts. At the same time, we also have some older judgements from the Supreme Court, and some judgements from the ECHR, which are looking into the procedure of interpretation that must take place.”

Ragnar Aðalsteinsson, a lawyer who has long fought for the rights of protestors in Iceland, echoed these sentiments.

“The Icelandic courts tend to say that any inconvenience made by protestors needs to be stopped,” he told us. “But the ECHR [has ruled that] inconvenience is a natural consequence of protests, and that the state must understand this and not interfere unless everything goes too far.”

Below is the statement from the accused, sent to the Grapevine:

Declaration on the 19th article charges against seven activists.

The first part of 2019 was a turning point in the struggle for migrants’/refugees’ rights in Iceland when a group of individuals, most of whom were going through the process of requesting international protection in Iceland and having been held in isolated refugee camps at Ásbrú, decided to fight together for their rights. With the support of people with a residence permit in Iceland, the group organized a campaign to ensure that refugees in Iceland would get their basic human rights fulfilled. Five requirements were set:

1. No more deportations,
2. Substantial review for all,
3. Equal access to health care,
4. Realistic possibility of a work permit,
5. Closure of the Ásbrú refugee camp.

The campaign, which lasted for about 8 months or from December 2018 to July 2019, included protests, political actions, information meetings, marches, letters to the authorities, fundraising events and much more. We who write this decided to stand in solidarity with the migrants by participating in this powerful struggle for bettering their rights. At the same time, we were fighting for ourselves and the world we want to live in: a world where everyone, not just “westerners”, enjoy freedom of movement, where xenophobia and racist structures are history and where borders are nothing more than lines on old maps that no one takes seriously anymore.

At first, the group was hopeful of being heard since politicians constantly talk about how they want to “address the system as a whole but not talk about individual cases”, which was exactly what the group was striving to do. But despite these declarations from politicians, it soon became clear that the authorities have little interest in hearing what refugees, and their supporters, have to say. We were systematically ignored by people in power and met with excessive force by the police; the use of pepper spray, batons and arrests was repeatedly applied to the group. Prominent people from the group of refugees were arrested and deported without notice and those who could not be deported (due to a residence permit) were repeatedly arrested and placed in detention.

There are two main reasons that drive us to write this statement today. On the one hand, we would like to draw attention to the violent enforcement that is carried out on a daily basis throughout Europe, including in Iceland, on the lives and bodies of people categorised by authorities as “refugees”. This violence appears in the form of deportations, dehumanization, poor conditions, discrimination and poor legal status.

On the other hand, we would like to shed light on why we took part in the political actions that led to the arrest and legal charges we are now faced with, with two of us already convicted. Three of us were arrested on March 19 during a political performance in which people stood in front of the main entrance of the Althingi with tape over their mouths and their hands up so that the words “Stop deportations” could be seen written on their palms. The performance had not lasted for more than 15 minutes before the police began to shove, push and arrest participants. Five of us were arrested during a small sit-in protest in the open lobby of the Ministry of Justice on April 5, 2019, within 15 minutes of the start of the protest. Both actions were intended to pressure the government to meet with representatives from the refugees, but prior to these actions the government had ignored all formal requests for a meeting for months. The actions were done in solidarity and in accordance to the wishes of the displaced people who led the protests and campaign. Here, as elsewhere in the West, solidarity with refugees and migrants has been criminalized. In our case, the police used Article 19 of the Police Act to stifle solidarity, and at the same time put an end to the political expression and the right to protests of those present, both of which are protected by the Icelandic Constitution and the European Convention on Human Rights.

The provisions of Article 19 of the Police Act reads as follows: “The public is obliged to obey instructions given by the police, such as for traffic control or to maintain law and order in public.” We find it difficult to understand what laws and rules were being maintained in these cases and we have not received any answers to that question as it is not clear from the police materials whether any assessment of whether it was right to “maintain laws and rules in public” in the way that it was done during these moments. As far as we know no such assessment has been done and there is no reference to this in the indictment or in the court ruling.

At first, when we were arrested, we did not believe that we could be charged with simply disobeying police orders. We believed that all such orders needed to have a legal basis, as it was a very serious interference in our lives and freedom. Upon closer inspection, it became clear that the 19th article has been applied to protesters in Iceland for years, especially against protests that the police and/or the authorities consider undesirable or unpleasant in any way. We consider it important to combat the application of Article 19 of the Police Act, which is currently applied in accordance to arbitrary decisions of individual police officers and thus support a totalitarian-like power the police can wield at any time.

Furthermore, we consider it important for people who want to live in a free and just society to protect each other in the struggle against all forms of oppression, violence and tyranny; whether it is against racism, homophobia and transphobia, xenophobia, ableism, corporations, global warming, patriarchy or white supremacy.

We therefore call for your solidarity with displaced people around the world as well as with those of us who are being criminalized for our solidarity.

Solidarity is not a crime,
Solidarity is one of our weapon against oppression!

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