Supreme Court toughens up

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UPDATED: Norway’s highest court issued what’s being called an historically tough prison sentence against a convicted sex offender on Thursday. By ordering disgraced mayor Rune Øygard to spend two years and three months in jail, the Supreme Court judges set what Øygard’s defense attorney called “a completely new trend” in punishment for sexual assault against children.

Former Mayor Rune Øygard speaking at a Labour Party event before he was charged with sexual assault against a girl under age 16. He now faces two years and three months in jail. PHOTO: Arbeiderpartiet

Former Mayor Rune Øygard speaking at a Labour Party event before he was charged with sexual assault against a girl under age 16. He now faces two years and three months in jail. PHOTO: Arbeiderpartiet

Øygard, once a powerful member of Norway’s Labour Party with close ties to outgoing Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg, has spent the past two years defending himself against charges that he exploited his position as a popular mayor to carry on a lengthy sexual relationship with a teenage girl. He was convicted both in a local court and in an appeals court, the latter sentencing him in May to one year and three months in jail for sexual assault against the girl from the time she was 14 to 16 years old. He was cleared of the more serious charge of assaulting her when she was even younger.

Øygard appealed both times, claiming he’s innocent of the charges and that his sentence was too long. Prosecutors also appealed, claiming his sentence from the appeals court was too short.

Sided with the prosecution
Norway’s Supreme Court (Høyesterett) refused to re-hear the entire case, agreeing only to handle the appeals of Øygard’s actual sentence. Its panel of judges clearly agreed with the prosecution, tacking a full year onto Øygard’s prison term ordered by the appeals court. The former mayor, who resigned from his elected office under pressure, is now expected to be called in by the prison authorities within the next 60 days.

Mette Yvonne Larsen, Øygard’s defense attorney, told Norwegian Broadcastng (NRK) that she thinks the high court must have “seen a need” to sharpen the punishment for sexual assault against children. Larsen noted that sex offenders often receive sentences of around six months in jail, so she thinks Øygard’s sentence is “absolutely” too strict given earlier court precedent.

Larsen had actually argued for a further reduction in Øygard’s sentence, on the grounds that he had endured massive and critical media coverage during the case which she equated to punishment in itself. Prosecutors scoffed at her reasoning, but the appeals court had cut his sentence from a four-year jail term initially ordered by a local court, and Larsen thought the Supreme Court should reduce it again.

The court’s rationale
Instead it did the opposite, with the high court justices indicating they found no reason to give Øygard any breaks. They cited the sheer quantity of sexual contact between Øygard and the girl, the age difference between the girl and Øygard, anguish suffered by the girl and, not least, Øygard’s misuse of his position (as a long-time mayor and politician). The court further determined that Øygard had betrayed the trust of the girl and her parents and even that, on several occasions, no birth control measures were used.

The scope of the sexual contact, the court ruled, was in itself enough to toughen Øygard’s prison sentence and illustrated his “strong and ongoing will” to carry out sexual assaults. The assaults weren’t carried out on impulse, the court noted, adding that they took place during a “long and important part” of the girl’s youth. Øygard, the justices wrote in their ruling, “pulled” the girl “into an adult man’s sexual life,” and therefore “erased the difference there should be between children and adults.”

New legal precedent
Larsen now predicts “a considerable jump” in punishments for other sexual assault cases because the Supreme Court ruling sets new legal precedent. She predictably disagreed with the ruling, noting that the Supreme Court judges boosted Øygard’s sentence without having seen or heard his testimony for themselves, or that of the girl who’d filed charges against him. She hastened to add, however, that she “has respect” for the ruling from the high court “that we all must lay down flat for.” Larsen also noted that “we have reason to be satisfied with the final result,” since his initial sentence of four years was nearly cut in half.

Øygard himself was said to be “disappointed” and maintains his innocence. There was no further word on whether he might file an appeal with the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. In Norway, his appeals have run out.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund