UPDATED: Rune Øygard, a once popular and powerful Norwegian mayor with ties to the highest levels of the Labour Party, was sentenced to four years in jail on Monday and resigned his mayor’s post as soon as the lengthy court ruling against him was read. A court in Lillehammer found him guilty on two counts of sexual misconduct with a minor, but Øygard has appealed.
Øygard’s defense attorney Mette Yvonne Larsen told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) her client was resigning as mayor “out of consideration to the community in Vågå,” the municipality in the mountains of central Norway where Øygard has been mayor for 17 years.
Officials of the Labour Party in Oppland County, where Vågå is located, already had said during a mid-day break in the court proceedings that they expected Øygard to give up his post. The verdict against him was widely considered to be comprehensive in its detail, and serious. It won’t take effect, however, until Øygard’s appeal is heard.
Øygard was also ordered by the Sør-Gudbrandsdal Court in Lillehammer to pay NOK 150,000 in compensation to the teenage girl who had charged him with repeatedly assaulting her from the age of 13. Øygard, age 53, was further ordered to pay NOK 25,000 in court costs.
The now ex-mayor of Vågå had faced at least two years in prison if found guilty of the assault charges against him, and prosecutors had asked for a four-year term. The court clearly agreed with the prosecution, granting the full four years requested in a sentence likely to be viewed as relatively harsh.
The Labour Party veteran who has had strong connections to Norway’s Labour-led government, had repeatedly denied guilt and his defense attorney had demanded full acquittal. Øygard described himself as simply a close friend and supporter of the girl, even though he had admitted in court that logs of sexually charged conversations with the girl over the Internet service Skype were inappropriate.
Still on paid leave
His trial went on for several weeks earlier this fall, with Øygard on leave from his mayor’s post and still collecting full pay. He earlier had refused to resign, despite repeated calls that he do so from both Labour Party secretary Raymond Johansen and from Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg, who once referred to Øygard as a “mentor.” While some party colleagues in Vågå had continued to support Øygard, the mounting evidence against him and impropriety of his relationship with the teenager had left most claiming that he’d lost confidence as a politician. On Monday, Stoltenberg called the verdict against Øygard “serious” but refrained from further comment at this point.
The court ruled on Monday that Øygard’s clarification of his relationship with the girl, now 17, appeared to be both manufactured, false and lacking credibility. Even though there was no physical evidence of a sexual relationship between them, the court believes there was given the evidence of “sexualized communication” presented in court. The girl also accompanied Øygard frequently on trips and stayed with him in his hotel room.
She was granted extraordinary access to some of the most powerful government officials in Norway, and questions have been raised as to why none of them in turn questioned the relationship. Party colleagues initially insisted that Øygard, like all others, was innocent until proven guilty, but started turning against him when evidence of the sexually charged communication was presented in court.
Larsen, Øygard’s attorney, said she and her client believe the court “lost focus” regarding evidence central to the case, which is why they chose to appeal. She claimed Øygard is innocent, and that a Skype log can’t confirm that her client assaulted the teenager more than 50 times, as he was charged. Øygard’s appeal will now be heard by the Eidsivating lagmannsrett, the district appeals court, in April.
The Øygard case has been among a string of sex scandals striking several of Norway’s political parties in recent years. It was the first major one to hit Labour, but was followed later this fall by the abrupt resignation of Roger Ingebrigtsen, a state secretary for Labour in the Trade Ministry, who admitted to having a sexual relationship with a teenage member of Labour’s youth party several years ago.
Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund
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