Breivik’s complaint tests system again

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NEWS ANALYSIS: Right-wing Norwegian mass-murderer Anders Behring Breivik entered his prison’s gymnasium in predictable fashion on Tuesday, dressed in a suit and tie and keen to pose for cameras with a Nazi salute. The gym, converted into a makeshift courtroom to handle his complaint over the terms of his confinement, is the venue for a trial over the next four days that once again puts Norway’s legal system to the test.

“Like many Norwegians, I was very proud of how we dealt with this man (at his main trial in 2012),” Thorbjørn Jagland, a former prime minister who’s now secretary general of the Council of Europe, told foreign correspondents in Oslo during a recent visit addressing the human rights of refugees. “I will be proud to see this dealt with as well.”

Jagland, who’s also a member of the Norwegian committee that awards the Nobel Peace Prize, views the trial as an important symbol of how the Rule of Law is regarded in Norway. “Everyone has a right to go to court, it’s part of the system we have,” Jagland said. “So let’s see what happens.”

‘Inhumane’ prison conditions
Breivik, convicted of murdering 77 people in twin attacks on July 22, 2011, has sued the state over allegedly “degrading” and “inhumane” conditions in the two prisons where he’s been held at Ila outside Oslo and, currently, in Skien, about a two-hour drive southwest of the Norwegian capital. The Skien prison’s gym was chosen to hear Breivik’s complaint (that his human rights are being violated) to avoid the security risk and expense of transporting him to a courthouse and, not least, to accommodate all the media interest in covering the case. As one veteran court reporter and commentator for newspaper Aftenposten, Inge D Hanssen, put it on Tuesday, Breivik’s lawsuit puts him back on center stage, “and that’s where he likes to be.”

It’s posed a dilemma for the Norwegian media, not least because of the pain, suffering and grief that the now-balding Breivik caused for so many when he bombed the government’s headquarters in Oslo, killing eight people, and then gunned down 69 more at a Labour Party summer camp. Most of his victims were teenagers or young adults, and many of their parents, relatives, friends and hundreds if not thousands of others just wanted Breivik to be placed in a jail cell and forgotten.

As Hanssen noted, it’s not that easy, at least not in Norway. Many media outlets feel an obligation to cover a case that tests the country’s legal system and prison conditions. Even the head of the union representing prison guards in Norway thinks it’s “just fine” that Breivik’s prison terms will be legally scrutinized, as did at least one victim’s parent interviewed in local media last week. While some countries maintain that convicts lose their rights when they’re sent to jail, Norway’s liberal political and legal system treats prisoners as human beings in need of rehabiliation so they can re-enter society. Norway has no death penalty, no system of sentencing convicts on multiple counts, and no life sentences. The maximum prison term is 21 years.

No regrets
Breivik couldn’t, for example, be sentenced to 77 21-year terms for murder, like he could in the US. He was sentenced, though, to Norway’s maximum under special custody terms called forvaring that allow judges to reevaluate whether he remains a threat to society at regular intervals. Considered to be Norway’s most dangerous prisoner, who has never shown any signs of regret for his murderous rampage, he also has been held under the prison system’s highest-security regime. That’s at the core of his complaint. Breivik objects particularly to how he’s been held in isolation for the past four-and-a-half years. He’s not allowed any contact with other prisoners (also for his own protection), his visits and communication are strictly controlled and his human contact is mostly restricted to prison staff and his lawyers.

Breivik’s lawyer Øystein Storrvik, who has represented several other high-profile criminals in Norway, specifically claims the high-security regime is violating Article Three of the European Convention on Human Rights, which forbids “inhumane treatment,” and Article Eight, which ensures the right to a private life. Storrvik also claimed on Tuesday morning that Breivik has been subjected to hundreds of strip searches and even when he’s allowed visitors, a glass wall separates him from them.

State officials categorically deny that Breivik’s human rights are being violated and defend the high-security regime and isolation as necessary, not only to protect Breivik from others but also because of Breivik’s own right-wing extremism. State attorney Marius Emberland claims the controls on Breivik’s communication with the outside world, for example, are based on a need to prevent him from building any terror networks that could “damage vital community interests.” Breivik reportedly has tried on several occasions to establish contact with other right-wing extremists. At a time of rising neo-Nazism in Europe, especially as a result of the refugee influx from the Middle East and Africa, others have also pointed to the need to prevent Breivik from communicating anything that could encourage violence.

Many more court appearances loom
If the court rules in favour of Breivik, the prison system would need to modify the terms of his custody. That would also likely be appealed by the state, however, just like Breivik will likely appeal any ruling against him. He’s already claimed through his attorney that he’s prepared to take the case to Norway’s Supreme Court and ultimately to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, which is tied to the Council of Europe that Jagland heads. Principles are at stake for the state, and Breivik has little else to occupy his time. Suing the state gives him something to do and, as Hanssen suggested, he loves the publicity that the media can provide. Emberland, the state attorney, claimed on Tuesday that Breivik wants to be portrayed as a martyr for right-wing extremists.

Hanssen of Aftenposten also noted that given all the scheduled evaluations tied to the length of his confinement, Breivik will have other opportunities to be back in court as well. The first evaluation will come up in 2021 and, mused Hanssen, “is there anyone who thinks he won’t demand to be set free?” His 21-year term will be up in 2032 but judges can still keep him confined if he’s deemed a threat. “More court cases await,” Hanssen wrote. “We will never be finished with him.”

The current trial runs through Friday, with a ruling expected later this spring. Berglund