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Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Breivik’s absent mother wields power

The trial of confessed terrorist Anders Behring Breivik entered its 10th and final week on Monday, with more testimony on the state of Breivik’s mental health. One person who’s never appeared in court nonetheless has been playing an increasingly powerful role in the issue: Breivik’s mother.

The second team of court-appointed psychiatrists in the terror case, Terje Tørrissen (left) and Agnar Aspaas, before they started testifying on Monday. PHOTO: NRK screen grab/Views and News

She’s been excused from testifying and protected in many other ways under Norwegian law, for reasons of family privacy. The legal use of statements she made to court-appointed psychiatrists, for example, has been challenged by her lawyer, resulting in a court-ordered ban on citing those discussed in court on Friday.

Yet few people had as much contact with Breivik as his mother did in the years leading up to his terrorist attacks on July 22, when he killed 77 persons by bombing government headquarters in Oslo and gunning down 69 Labour Party summer campers on the island of Utøya. Her opinions and descriptions of his behaviour, and how it allegedly changed prior to the attacks, can play a decisive role in whether he’s ultimately declared sane or insane, and thus what type of sentence he’ll be given.

The first team of court-appointed psychiatrists to examine Breivik managed to meet and speak with his mother just a few weeks after the attacks. She’d been admitted to hospital herself right after Breivik’s arrest, to deal with the shock of his crimes. Psychiatrists Synne Sørheim and Torgeir Husby, however, won permission to talk with her at a meeting that itself has raised ethical questions because of Husby’s professional relationship to her doctor. “A firewall should be set up between the doctors conducting treatment and those appointed by the court who seek information,” Svenn Torgersen, a professor in psychology, told newspaper Aftenposten. He calls the circumstances around the meeting between Breivik’s mother and the court-appointed psychiatrists “special.”

While police investigators chose not to question Breivik’s mother in the period just after the attacks, from July 23 to September 6, Husby and Sørheim spoke with her for three hours on August 14 and, based on her spoken consent at the time, they used much of her information about her son in their evaluation of his mental health. Aftenposten reported before the ban on further citation from their report that she had, among other things, said he became “completely strange” after 2006, especially after 2010, living in a “dream world,” and demanding that she not sneeze, for fear she’d contaminate him. She has also said that Breivik, who had moved back home to his mother’s Oslo apartment, spent most of his time playing computer games and grew angry if she disturbed him. The psychiatrists claimed she made their food, did his laundry and took care of all household chores, and that Breivik therefore did not take care of himself like most other young men his age.

His mother’s statements formed much of the basis for Husby’s and Sørheim’s joint diagnosis that Breivik suffers from psychosis and paranoid schizophrenia. The second team of psychiatrists comprised of Terje Tørrissen and Agnar Aspaas, who started testifying on Monday, don’t think Breivik is psychotic but rather has some personality disorders. They paid more attention to Breivik’s political ideology, which Husby and Sørheim seemed to largely dismiss, and the Tørrissen/Aspaas team believes Breivik can be held accountable for his attacks. Other psychiatrists have also questioned how Breivik could possbily be insane, when he did manage to care for himself after moving from his mother’s apartment to the farm where he built his powerful bomb. Anyone who also could so carefully plan such massive attacks can’t be insane, they argue, and they dismiss Husby’s and Sørheim’s belief that he had reduced functionality.

The prosecution must decide what type of sentence they’ll seek for Breivik by Thursday, when they’re due to make their closing arguments. Then it’s up to the judicial panel led by Judge Wenche Elizabeth Arntzen to make a ruling. She has already asked Husby and Sørheim what sets Breivik apart from any other terrorist, to which they replied on Friday, also under cross-examination by defense counsel, that “terrorism is not our field. We have not gone into that issue.”

The conclusion reached by Husby and Sørheim, if it stands, can mean that any terrorist is in fact mentally ill and shouldn’t be punished for their acts. Tørrissen said Monday that he and Aspaas believe they have a good foundation for arriving at the opposite conclusion, that they have a “good picture” of how Breivik thinks, and that Breivik can indeed be punished with a prison term.

The trial will end on Friday, with a verdict due in July or August.

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund

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