“It’s a strange experience to walk down the street and suddenly be recognized,” defense attorney Geir Lippestad told foreign correspondents in Oslo this week. But that’s exactly what’s happened since Lippestad agreed to defend one of the worst confessed mass-murderers in the world.
“We are not preoccupied with being celebrities,” Lippestad continued, speaking on behalf of himself and his co-counsel Vibeke Hein Bæra. Rather, he claims, his decision to represent confessed terrorist Anders Behring Breivik was based on democratic principles and he actually feared he’d become a legal pariah.
Breivik wanted Lippestad to defend him because of his work defending a neo-Nazi accused of murdering an African-Norwegian teenager around a decade ago. Lippestad’s client was sentenced to prison in the murder of Benjamin Hermansen, but it became a landmark case and “my name had fixed itself in Breivik’s mind.” Lippestad agreed to represent Breivik, but made it clear he had no intention of furthering Breivik’s right-wing, anti-Muslim ideology. “We agreed I’d take care of the law, he would handle the ideology part,” Lippestad told members of Norway’s Foreign Press Association.
That’s pretty much what’s happened in the seven months since, and Lippestad said he and Bæra have a “purely professional relationship” with their client. It’s a “demanding” case, though, not least on the personal side.
“When I was working on the Hermansen case, I felt very alone and worried it would be 10 times worse on this case,” Lippestad said. It was in the beginning, he admitted, as he was assailed with harsh comments and even good friends couldn’t understand how he could represent a person such as Breivik, who killed 77 persons in his attacks of July 22.
But public sentiment shifted quite quickly, after just a week, Lippestad recalls, as both colleagues and the public at large seemed to accept that Lippestad had taken on an important job. “I had expected many years in professional solitude,” he said. “But there’s a very good understanding, also outside of Norway, for what we’re doing, and that we’re conducting a full trial on this.
“No one understands our client, but they understand legal principles.”
That includes protecting individual legal rights, also Breivik’s. Both Lippestad and Bæra stressed several times that they see their job as crucial to democracy, and important for any country ruled by law and order.
Breivik’s trial will begin April 16 and last for 10 weeks, with a verdict expected in late June or early July. In the likely case of appeal, Lippestad said he intends to stay on the case through “an appeals round,” even though that will take a toll on his personal life. Lippestad and his wife have eight children between them, including a new baby and two older children who have been seriously ill.
Lippestad claims it was his wife, though, who said he had to take the case when called. The phone rang the morning of July 23 and when Lippestad was asked to be Breivik’s lead defense attorney, he initially rejected the thought. “But my wife, who’s a nurse, said that if Breivik was wounded, she and her medical colleagues would help him, they wouldn’t just let him bleed,” Lippestad said. “She said I had to do my job, too.”
He’s aware that his role stlll makes him a target of sorts. “We have a security system around us,” he confirmed. “I won’t talk about it, and leave that to the police.” He said he doesn’t think about it much: “You can’t go around being afraid.”
Meanwhile, the legal work facing Lippestad and his colleagues is staggering as the Easter holidays approach and the trial date nears. When the summer holidays approach, they’ll presumably have a verdict.
“Then we’ll know that we’ve done what we can, that we defined our assignment,” he said. It probably won’t be over.
Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund
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