Embassy’s drunk driver stirs up an awkward diplomatic incident in Oslo

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UPDATED: Norway’s foreign ministry was summoning South Africa’s ambassador for a meeting on Monday, to communicate the Norwegian government’s displeasure after a drunk driver from the South African Embassy caused a serious car crash in Oslo during the weekend. The incident set off a chain of legal infractions but the embassy personnel involved can avoid punishment by claiming diplomatic immunity.

The ambassadors at embassies involved in law violations must still answer for them, however. In this case they led to a head-on collision in Oslo’s Frogner district late Saturday night and involved no small degree of police drama. “The ambassador at the embassy involved will be called in for a conversation at the foreign ministry, probably already tomorrow,” ministry spokesman Rune Bjåstad told newspaper Aftenposten’s website osloby.no on Sunday afternoon.

Driver appeared drunk, passenger ran away
The drama began around an hour after midnight Saturday, when a police patrol car was responding to a call for help. While driving up Bygdøy allé, the main boulevard running through Oslo’s fashionable Frogner district where most embassies are located, the police came up behind a car bearing CD (Corps diplomatique) license plates. They reacted to the way the embassy car was being driven.

Newspaper VG reported that instead of pulling over, the embassy car picked up speed. “Suddenly the embassy car accelerated as if it tried to get away (from the police),” Ola Krokan, operations leader for the Oslo Police District, told osloby.no. The police then turned on their car’s blue lights and siren, and the embassy driver responded by swerving into the oncoming lane, whereupon the embassy car collided with a car driven by a young Norwegian health care worker who was responding to a call for help on behalf of the private Aleris clinic in Frogner.

The health care worker was pinned in her Aleris car and had to be freed by firefighters called to the scene before she could be rushed to Ullevål University Hospital. Police said she remained conscious throughout and her injuries initially were described as relatively minor. Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) later reported, however, that she suffered a broken hip along with internal injuries, and may need surgery.

Police told several Norwegian reporters that the driver of the car, which NRK later attached to the South Afrian Embassy, appeared to be under the influence of alcohol, while the passenger in the embassy car jumped out and ran away instead of offering any assistance at the scene of the collision. Krokan told VG that police made no attempt to chase the person who fled the scene of the accident, which occurred near the intersection of Bygdøy allé and Frederik Stangs gate.

License plates clipped off
Since embassy personnel in Norway are protected by diplomatic immunity from local laws, regulations and taxes, as they are in most countries, police were unable to file any charges against the driver or embassy officials. Nor could police force the driver to submit to tests for drunk driving. Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) reported that personnel from the South African Embassy arrived at the scene to escort the driver either home or back to the embassy.

The embassy’s CD license plates were also quickly clipped off the car, making it difficult to trace. Neither police nor foreign ministry officials would identify the embassy, apparently in a gesture to shield it from public embarrassment, but that only set off speculation that cast suspicion over the entire diplomatic community in Norway. NRK reported later on Sunday afternoon that it was an employee of the South African Embassy who had crashed with the Aleris car driven by the 28-year-old health care worker. The reportedly drunk embassy employee refused to agree to a breathalyzer test for alcohol consumption.

The incident will nonetheless have at least some repercussions for the embassy involved, since its ambassador (Queen Anne Zondo since February 2013) is to be called in on the proverbial carpet for a meeting at which she will be asked for an explanation. In some cases, ministry officials can declare diplomats as uønsket (unwanted in Norway), and ask that they be sent home. Drunk driving has always been an especially serious offense in Norway, resulting in immediate revocation of a driver’s license, heavy fines and mandatory jail terms even when no one is injured or killed.

The identity of the person who ran away from the crashed embassy car remained unclear. Erik Sandøy, chief executive of the Aleris private clinic, said Aleris would file a complaint wi the police since its car was a total wreck after the incident, its employee was injured and couldn’t assist a client who had called for help.

“It’s fine that there’s international rules for this, but I expect the embassy to follow up,” Sandøy told NRK. “Nobody should have immunity from this kind of behaviour.”

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund