Ex-mayor ‘guilty and not guilty’

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UPDATED: Rune Øygard was once considered the most popular and successful mayor in Norway, a star of the Labour Party and mentor for Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg. On Wednesday, his fate was in the hands of a jury at the end of his lengthy trial on sexual assault charges against a minor, and they reached a mixed verdict.

Rune Øygard of the Labour Party has denied all the charges of sexual assault against him, and claims he wants to return as mayor of Vågå. PHOTO: Arbeiderpartiet

Rune Øygard, when he was still a Labour Party mayor. His appeals trial on sexual assault charges against a minor ended this week. PHOTO: Arbeiderpartiet

The 10-member jury decided that Øygard was not guilty of having sex with the plaintiff in the case when she only 13 years old. The jury found him guilty, though, of charges that he had sex with her when she was older than 14 but younger than 16, which is the legal age of sexual consent in Norway.

That means the former mayor still faces jail time. The judge in the case accepted the jury’s conclusions and was listening to arguments from prosecutors and defense attorneys on Thursday regarding what his punishment should be, before sentencing. Many legal experts expected Øygard would be sentenced to less than the four years in jail handed down by the lower court.

Øygard’s appeals trial has gone on for weeks in a court in Hamar, a city which also was coincidentally facing major flooding and transportation disruptions on Wednesday. Øygard himself has faced a flood of accusations from improper conduct to criminal assault since the charges made by his longtime teenage companion first surfaced in the late summer of 2011.

That was when the Labour Party already was reeling from terrorist attacks just a few weeks earlier, and party members were united in their grief. Top officials from Stoltenberg on down, though, started distancing themselves from Øygard as the charges against him grew increasingly serious and preparations got underway for his first trial.

It began last fall, after the terrorist’s trial was over, and received massive media attention, not least because of Øygard’s powerful political connections and the questions of abuse of power that were raised. It ended with his conviction and sentencing to four years in jail. Øygard, who earlier had defied the requests of Labour leaders that he voluntarily give up his elected post as mayor of Vågå, finally resigned but quickly appealed his conviction, leading to the trial that’s ending this week.

Relationship raised few questions
It’s been full of more incriminating evidence of sexually charged Skype conversations and retrieved text messages between him and the teenager, who claims the mayor first assaulted her when she was just 13. The two were viewed as a pair for several years and she frequently traveled around Norway with Øygard, but he was married and their relationship raised surprisingly few questions. He was mostly viewed as having a “reserve father” role for a girl with a troubled background.

Instead, according to prosecutors, Øygard pursued a sexual relationship with her. He’s charged with having sex with the now-17-year-old girl on numerous occasions from October 2009 until September 2011, at holiday cabins, in Øygard’s home, at a mountain farm and in various hotel rooms as she traveled with him around Norway. While there is little if any physical evidence of assault, the girl has testified to “at least 50” incidents of intercourse and it’s been acknowledged by both sides that they slept together.

Øygard has consistently denied a sexual relationship, fending off evidence of the sexually charged text messages and Skype conversations as inappropriate but innocent, and explaining that they shared a bed because the girl was insecure and uncomfortable sleeping alone while out traveling.

Maintained loyalty and popularity
Testimony over the past several weeks has also revealed that several of Øygard’s fellow politicians, other colleagues and even his wife, friends and relatives knew about the shared beds but didn’t react or think that was unusual. Øygard maintained enormous loyalty and popularity as mayor of the mountain community around Vågå, and both his brother Rolv and the former vice mayor of Vågå, Astrid Marie Sveen Løkken, were among those testifying that they saw no problems with the two sharing a hotel room when he took the girl with him on official trips. It also cut down on travel expenses, they reasoned.

Øygard also took part in the girl’s intrigue against her parents, picked up the same teenage language she used and expressed on numerous occasions that they were kjærester (sweethearts). “Don’t you understand how much you mean to me? Are you still as in love with me now?” wrote Øygard in one text message to her that was retrieved by police. Øygard testified that he didn’t remember that particular message: “It was, after all, sent two years ago.”

One witness testified that Øygard could behave like an immature teenager himself. Telephone logs revealed that he could ring or send text messages to the girl dozens of times every day, often even more.

In the end, though, it was mostly his word against hers, with lawyers on both sides generally agreeing that either the mayor or the girl has been lying. It was up to the jury to decide who was most credible, with Øygard facing limited possibilities of appeal.

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund

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