UPDATED: Norwegian police were being roundly accused on Thursday of failing to respond quickly to a potential threat and failing to ensure the safety of, in this case, both winners of the Nobel Peace Prize and the entire Norwegian power structure. The serious breach of security at Wednesday’s Peace Prize ceremony was being called a new “scandal” for the police.
Police officials themselves have tried to tone down the seriousness of the security breach, when a Mexican student managed to slip past two security checkpoints and later storm the stage. The young man, Adan Cortes Salas, came face-to-face with Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai, the young woman whom the Taliban tried but failed to kill. Her co-winner Kailash Satyarthi has also been a target of attempted murder and security around them both was supposed to be high.
Apology not enough
Instead, the Mexican student was able to enter and move freely around the Oslo City Hall, where the Norwegian royal family, top government officials and scores of other dignitaries were assembled to view the annual prize ceremony that was being televised worldwide. Salas told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) Thursday evening that it was “easy” to gate-crash the ceremony and that no one ever asked him for a ticket or identification.
Police, who were also harshly criticized for their response to terrorist attacks in Norway three years ago, have apologized that a protester managed to get through the ticket- and identity control checkpoint. They stressed, though, that he had cleared the first checkpoint because he was carrying nothing that could be construed as a weapon. Leaders of the Oslo Police District contended that he therefore was not dangerous and had no intent to harm anyone.
Newspaper Aftenposten editorialized on Thursday that was all but irrelevant and an “unacceptable” response to what the paper called a “security scandal.” The police’s otherwise elaborate security apparatus failed at a critical point, the paper argued, and “it doesn’t help that the entire Norwegian elite had to show their identification and invitations at the entrance, when a foreign student is able to slip in without anyone asking the critical question of who he is.”
The young man was intent on drawing international attention to violence and lawlessness in his native Mexico, and the fate of 43 students who disappeared but are believed to have been kidnapped and killed by a crime syndicate active in Mexico’s drug wars. Malala herself said on Thursday that it’s important for people to “stand up for their rights” and to “want their voices to be heard.”
Asked whether she was frightened by his protest action, just moments after she’d received her Peace Prize medal and diploma, the young woman who foiled the Taliban’s attempt to kill her said no, adding with a laugh that not much scares her anymore.
Government officials including Prime Minister Erna Solberg were far from consoled, and the police have been harshly criticized by both politicians, state authorities and the media. It took 11 seconds before body guards from the police reacted to Salas’ presence on the stage and removed him. He has since been charged with disturbing the peace, fined NOK 15,000 and was still being held in custody Thursday. He was later turned over to immigration authorities, since he applied for asylum in Norway this week, and taken to the Trandum asylum center. His application was not expected to be approved.
The protester has received support from other Mexicans living in Norway who also decry the corruption and violence in Mexico. Many feel it has not received enough international attention and that the Mexican government has failed to address the issues and heed public calls for a crackdown. Even Mexico’s ambassador to Norway, Luis Javier Campuzano Pina, told state broadcaster NRK that he understood “the solidarity” Salas feels with the students and their families. The ambassador apologized for the disruption at the Peace Prize ceremony, though, and claimed the protester chose the wrong place and method.
Norwegians remained most concerned about the security breach at one of the most important events of the year in Norway. Several security experts told NRK that a person can cause a lot of injury even without a weapon. “There are many ways to attack a person,” Knut Brende of the M16 Akershus Vaktselskap, a local security firm, told NRK. “You can kill a person with bare hands.” Others criticized guards on duty at the ceremony for reacting much too slowly to the intruder on stage.
“No one knew what his frame of mind was,” Harald Lilleeidet of PSS Securitas told NRK. “First he got past the security checkpoints, then he moved about inside City Hall in a manner that guards should have noticed. And when he ran up to the stage, he was allowed to stand there much too long. There was one mistake after another.”
He thinks the police realize they made several major mistakes. If not, they’re sure to be reminded: “Things like this should not happen,” veteran politician Carl I Hagen, a former vice-president of the Parliament who now works in City Hall, told Aftenposten. Hagen echoed remarks made by the prime minister right after the incident, adding that “it’s no good when this also happens on a day when international attention is directed at Oslo.” Police have since sharpened security around Peace Prize events, which were winding down Thursday night after the Nobel Concert at the Oslo Spektrum Arena.