Security high as confessed terrorist’s first public custody hearing begins

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Court officials in Oslo worked through the weekend to prepare the city’s courthouse (Oslo Tingrett) for its biggest challenge ever: The first custody hearing for confessed terrorist Anders Behring Breivik that’s open to the public. Survivors and families of Breivik’s vicims feared the open hearing would be a “circus,” despite high security and assurances that law and order would prevail.

People were lined up in freezing temperatures outside the Oslo City Court (Tingrett) more than four hours before the hearing was to begin at 11am on Monday. Around 300 seats were made available for the general public, on a first-come, first-served basis, and many clearly wanted to catch a glimpse of the man who killed 77 persons in a bombing and massacre on July 22.

Inside the courtroom on Tingrett’s highest level, where metal detectors are installed and security is also highest, more than 100 seats were made available for plaintiffs’ lawyers and those clients who wanted to attend. Around 160 seats were also set aside for journalists, who were banned from earlier custody hearings for Breivik after judges ruled that the proceedings would take place behind closed doors.

Fears of a public platform
A different ruling came on Friday. Breivik had appealed a prosecutor’s request that the new hearing (to determine the terms of his custody for the next 12 weeks) take place via a video link from the prison outside Oslo where Breivik is being held. Breivik himself wanted to appear personally in court, and the court not only went along but opened the hearing to the public. Breivik’s defense attorney has said his client also wanted to address the court about why he bombed Norway’s government headquarters, killing eight and causing massive destruction, and then gunned down 69 more people on the island.

That set off widespread fears that Breivik will be given the public platform he long has sought, and that the media will spread his message. Many survivors and victims’ families have expressed disappointment that the hearing was opened to the public, with the head of their support group saying it would be “a tough meeting” and one of their lawyers saying it “must be like torture victims meeting their torturer after a war.” Survivors have complained for months that simply seeing Breivik’s photo on newspaper front pages is an ordeal. Norwegian media have shown varying degrees of restraint in their coverage.

Court officials tried to allay the fears, saying the judge would likely interrupt any proclamations from Breivik. The media may even be prevented from citing what’s said in court, with the judge due to rule on that at the end of the hearing. The hearing itself is in many ways a legal formality, to set new terms for a prisoner’s custody while awaiting trial.

Judge promises ‘dignity’
The judge assigned to the hearing, Torskjell Nesheim, told newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) on Monday that the open doors “present an extra challenge” but that he will demand order in the courtroom.

“My goal is that the hearing be carried out with dignity, not least out of consideration for the plaintiffs and survivors,” Nesheim told DN. He said Breivik would be treated “with professionalism from the court, like all other defendants.”

Nesheim said the results of the custody hearing, which normally lasts around 30 to 45 minutes, will be written up and announced Monday afternoon. Other lawyers and court officials would also meet on Monday to plan the actual trial for Breivik, due to begin in April. Nesheim, meanwhile, said he’d prepared for the face-to-face meeting with Breivik by reading through court documents, thinking through what needed to occur in court, and by taking a solitary jogging trip through the forest around Oslo on Sunday.

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund

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