Sexual assault charges strike at the heart of the Labour Party

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More bad headlines for the Labour Party: Norwegian media are offering broad coverage this week of a sensational court case involving sexual assault charges filed by a 16-year-old girl against one of the party’s most respected mayors. The case  raises serious questions about the judgment of top-ranking Labour Party officials from the mayor himself all the way up to Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg.

It’s the latest in a string of recent sex scandals involving politicians, but the first to hit Labour so directly. Mayor Rune Øygard, age 53, has been a high-ranking member of the Labour Party for years and mayor of the landmark mountain town of Vågå since 1995. Stoltenberg himself has called Øygard a mentor and good friend, and apparently met the young girl in the company of Øygard on a number of occasions. On Tuesday Øygard was in court to defend himself against the charges filed against him by the now-16-year-old and her family last year. He was indicted on March 29.

Detailed testimony
After the first day of almost embarrassingly detailed testimony in court on Tuesday, observers were left wondering why or how the girl, when she was as young as 14, could become such a fixture in the mayor’s professional and social life without others around them reacting. Stoltenberg, for his part, has dodged direct questions on the case, saying he “wants to live in a society where the courts deal with such indictments, not other politicians.”

According to the girl’s own testimony, she was at Øygard’s side when he took part in Labour Party meetings, official visits and trips to the mayor’s holiday cabin, where the alleged sexual assaults began. A place had even been ready for her at a dinner involving celebrity Norwegian chef Arne Brimi and Stoltenberg himself on the evening before she and her family filed charges against Øygard.

She described in detail Tuesday what she claims were sexual assaults both at Øygard’s home, his cabin and while on several trips around Norway with him, in Oslo, Molde and Larvik. “I’ve been withRune to Oslo six or seven times,” she testified. “I was with him at Jens Stoltenberg’s home for an evening meal, and I also met Morten Krogvold (a well-known Norwegian photographer) to see his pictures.”

Urged to take a ‘morning after’ pill
On one of the trips to Oslo, she claims Øygard got her to buy a so-called “morning after” pill “to be sure I wouldn’t get pregnant.” She also claims he all but begged her to come along with him on an overnight trip to the Farris Bad spa in Larvik, even though she had planned another trip with friends to the mountain town of Stryn. “He called many times, said I couldn’t travel off, because then he’d have nothing to live for,” she testified.

The two met, she said, in 2009 when her mother and stepfather married and “they wanted Rune to be best man,” she testified. Six months later they met again in Lom and she said Øygard asked her to help him set up a Facebook profile. “He wanted to have better contact with young people,” she said.

“I though ‘Wow, I have contact with a mayor,'” she testified. The contact soon became frequent with e-mail and text messages and then much more. They had daily contact. The first assault came while she was on a visit to his cabin along with Øygard’s wife. She claimed there were around 20-25 incidents of sexual contact over the next two years. Øygard, she testified, allegedly got angry when she got a boyfriend closer to her own age in the summer of 2011. She claimed he was jealous. She filed charges a few months later.

‘Important she tells her story’
Her attorney told reporters it was “important” for the girl to tell her story in open court. Øygard denies the charges against him and will have his opportunity to testify as well. He says he can’t understand her allegations, which involve sex with a minor, and he has managed to officially remain mayor although he’s been put on leave until the trial concludes. Labour Party officials’ decision not to suspend him likely reflects the respect he’s had within the party and his popularity in Vågå.

Stoltenberg, meanwhile, has been excused from testifying and lately reduced his characterization of Øygard from “friend and mentor” to “a party fellow whom I have known for many years.” Around 60 other persons have been called in an effort to explain why or how the alleged relationship between Øygard and the girl could have continued so long with no one raising questions before. The trial may go on for four weeks.

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund

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