State prosecutors asked an Oslo court on Thursday to commit confessed terrorist Anders Behring Breivik to mandatory psychiatric treatment instead of sending him to jail. They think there’s too much doubt about the state of his mental health to recommend a prison term based on current Norwegian legal practice.
If the court (Oslo Tingrett) fails to share the prosecution’s doubts that he’s sane, however, they asked that he then be sentenced to Norway’s longest jail term of 21 years with forvaring, a form of protective custody that could keep him in custody for the rest of his life.
Norway has no life-terms nor does the country have a death sentence, but authorities view Breivik as extremely dangerous and a threat to society. He has said several times, also in court testimony, that he would carry out such attacks again to carry on what he calls a fight against Muslim domination of Norway and Europe. The threat he thus poses would allow sentencing him to the protective custody that can keep him in confinement for an undetermined amount of time. He would not be eligible for any form of parole or leave for at least 10 years.
Prosecutors Inga Bejer Engh and Svein Holden, in their nearly three-hour long closing arguments on the next-to-last day of Breivik’s 10-week trial, conceded on several occasions that there was a lot of evidence pointing in favour of his sanity. They noted how he had carefully planned his attacks that killed 77 persons last summer for years, he carried them out with a degree of efficiency and viciousness that they said was almost impossible to fathom, and several psychiatrists who had examined him found no signs of psychosis.
Engh acknowledged that Breivik’s attacks on July 22 last year were “so gruesome” that he had set off a “national trauma” and “severely challenged” Norway’s legal system. She also noted that his attacks were “not a result of impulse” and that Breivik, whom she referred to as “murder machine,” had a “strong drive” to kill as many people as possible.
She and Holden and Norway’s prosecuting authority (påtalemyndigheten) felt strongly, though, that the Breivik case must be handled like all other legal cases in Norway. That means any doubts about the defendant’s sanity at the time of the crime must go in the defendant’s favour, and that generally means they can avoid prison.
It was the initial report from two court-appointed psychiatrists who diagnosed Breivik as being paranoid schizophrenic, and their vigorous defense of their diagnosis in court testimony last week, that left the prosecution with enough doubt that they felt they couldn’t demand criminal punishment in prison for him. Even though a second team of court-appointed psychiatrists, called in to provide a second opinion, found no signs of psychosis themselves, prosecutors felt court precedent and regulations ruled out a jail term. They simply weren’t sure that Breivik could be held accountable for his actions.
They also felt compelled to ignore both public opinion in Norway, which favoured a jail term, and massive debate over how how the legal system should function. Any weaknesses in the system, Engh claimed, can’t affect the case at hand. Prosecutors will be obliged to take them up with lawmakers and court authorities, but only after a verdict is in hand “and things have calmed down,” she said. Both she and Holden have said all along that they must “work within the legal system we have,” even though many now argue it gives too much power to court-appointed psychiatrists. Their sentencing request on Thursday thus came as no big surprise.
Breivik himself, who often sat with a smirk on his face during Thursday’s court proceedings, has actually fought an insanity verdict and wants to be sentenced to jail instead. Commitment to psychiatric care would damage his own image of himself as an anti-Islamic terrorist, and also raises questions of whether all terrorists aren’t psychotic and should face treatment instead of punishment. Holden argued that “the fewest” would give any weight to the defendant’s own wishes. Even though doubt over his sanity should favour the defendant, Holden called it a “blind alley” in this case and it didn’t prompt them to recommend the jail term Breivik wants over the compulsory psychiatric treament they favour.
Ironically enough, avoiding a prison term and being committed to psychiatric care instead thus may be the worst punishment Breivik could get, from his point of view. If the judicial panel in the case agrees with the prosecution, Breivik may appeal, launching the country into another difficult trial. Closing arguments for the defense are scheduled for Friday and a verdict is due later this summer.
Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund
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