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Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Prosecutor drops ministry probe

UPDATED: Norway’s state prosecutor (Statsadvokaten) was raising questions Friday about how the country’s foreign ministry (Utenriksdepartementet, UD) has handled a conflict of interest case involving the former Norwegian ambassador to Indonesia. Prosecutor Jørn Maurud decided to drop further inquiry, concluding that nothing criminal had occurred.

A shadow has fallen over Norway’s foreign ministry after newspaper VG reported on the questionable activities of its ambassador to Indonesia. Employees within the ministry, pictured here in Oslo, and several legal experts have questioned how the ministry has handled the case, and whether it involves misappropriation of foreign aid funds. PHOTO:

Newspaper VG has been writing detailed and documented stories all week about how former ambassador Stig Traavik, who moved to Indonesia’s capital of Jakarta with his wife in 2012, had three secret romantic relationships with three Indonesian women during the course of his four years in the mostly Muslim nation. One of the women, who ran a cultural organization, had already received, through Norway’s embassy in Jakarta,  NOK 1.5 million in Norwegian funding for five cultural projects before Traavik became ambassador.

In the spring of 2013, reportedly before their affair began, Norway’s new ambassador to Indonesia actively promoted her efforts. She secured another NOK 550,000 (around USD 90,000 at the time) to expose the works of a Norwegian author to a local community in an area of Indonesia known for its strict intepretation of Islam. VG reported that Traavik signed the documents on the resulting grants that came from funds earmarked for fighting poverty, on May 7, 2013. Later that year, after their romance was underway, she applied for and eventually received nearly another NOK 1.5 million spread over two years. Traavik did not sign documents in that case, but VG reported that those sent to Oslo in defense of her cultural projects contained a hand-written note that they’d been “cleared with Stig.”

Denies any wrongdoing
Traavik, who has denied any wrongdoing, later ended the romance but launched two more with other local businesswomen who were invited to embassy events and met Norwegian ministers including Prime Minister Erna Solberg. His behaviour ultimately led to a scolding and recall last year, and has prompted legal experts outside UD to raise questions of criminal liability regarding the use of public funds. Traavik was called home to Oslo seven months after the embassy in Jakarta was alerted to his behaviour, and he was forced to give up his “ambassador” title upon return. Officials at UD call that a “strict reaction” to his behaviour while serving as Norway’s top representative in a large and important foreign country. Traavik has since admitted he made a mistake and apologized, but continues to deny wrongdoing and has complained, without going into any detail, about how VG has presented the story. Traavik stresses that no public funds were misused or unfairly distributed.

When Prime Minister Erna Solberg visited Indonesia and met with religious leaders, then-Ambassador Stig Traavik (far left) was close at hand. He was recalled in December of last year and given a new job at the foreign ministry in Oslo in February. PHOTO: Ambassaden i Jakarta/Øystein L Andersen

Others both within and outside UD challenge Traavik’s own assessment and have reacted negatively to the facts that he was allowed to retain his security clearance, his ambassador’s salary and given a new job with the title of “senior adviser.” He also was among the chosen few within UD who traveled to China in April with Solberg and Foreign Minister Børge Brende on a landmark trip that restored diplomatic relations between the two countries.

That’s said to have upset some UD employees. There’s now “a sense of shame” over Traavik’s behaviour in Jakarta reportedly circulating among some who feel he “got off lightly” and has been treated differently than other employees have in the past. Ministry spokesman Frode O Andersen strongly denied that, and told that “the same regulations” that have applied to all others have also formed the basis for UD’s reaction to Traavik’s behaviour.

Prosecutor raised questions but dropped further probe
VG reported on Friday that Jørn Maurud, a lead state prosecutor at the Higher Prosecuting Authorities in Oslo, has been in contact with the ministry about what’s now being called “the ambassador case.” Maurud and fellow prosecutors were seeking answers regarding how the case has been handled. “I’m waiting for an orientation from them before I conclude what we eventually will do in this case,” Maurud told VG.

On Friday afternoon, Maurud told state broadcaster NRK that “after talking to UD,” he’d decided to drop further inquiry. VG reported that Maurud had several conversations with UD but concluded that “after a good and clarifying dialog with several UD officials today (Friday), my evaluation is that there’s no basis for me to ask police to investigate whether there’s been any criminal act.”

He said that was conditional, however, on whether any “new information” arises that would prompt a different conclusion.  Andersen of UD told VG that Maurud’s conclusion was in line with the ministry’s own.

Others not convinced
Several others were still raising questions and objections after the ministry initially dismissed the case as “a personnel matter” not subject to the public glare. That’s been repeatedly challenged by lawyers and corruption experts who contend that UD should have immediately taken the case to the police in Oslo, to obtain an external evaluation of Traavik’s actions.

VG has reported that UD did not inform Norway’s national security authority (NSM) about them either, as they generally are obligated to do in cases  “which can be seen to have significance” or lead to utpressing (extortion). An NSM official told VG that “if someone has ties to another person that can lead to pressure,” it would “probably” trigger the need to inform NSM. UD did not find that necessary.

VG reported on Thursday that UD has removed information related to its own investigation of Traavik’s activities in Jakarta from the public record, on the grounds once again that it is first and foremost a personnel matter. That has sparked more critical reaction from another law professor at the University of Oslo, Jan Fridthjof Bernt, an expert on management law.

‘No longer a private matter’
“If an ambassador enters into private relationships with women in the embassy’s country, it can at the outset be viewed as being of a private character,” Bernt told VG, “but when information comes forward that indicates that he, as a consequence, has broken rules regarding conflicts of interest regarding distribution of public funds, it can no longer be subject to confidentiality.”

Professor Bernt said there are no portions of the law that allow such a matter to be removed from the public domain. “When private relations have consequences for the conduct of public service, it is no longer a private matter,” Bernt told VG.

Law professor Jon Petter Rui at the University of Bergen agreed. “This is, in my opinion, more than a personnel matter,” Rui, who specializes in economic crime, told VG. “It raises questions about the use of public funds for financing projects abroad.” Lawyer Mats Stenmark has earlier claimed that UD should have taken the matter to police and still should, to obtain an external evaluation of whether they should open a criminal investigation. That suggests Traavik could still face criminal charges although the ministry disputes that. Since it opted against going to the police, without explaining why, the ministry itself disagrees that any criminal charges could still arise.

Call for full openness
Newspaper Dagsavisen has also called for full openness in the ambassador case, arguing that it is in the public’s interest to know whether public officials have “put themselves in a position where they are vulnerable to blackmail or extortion, aren’t emotionally capable of making the right decisions or even exchange information and form ties to people we others should know about.” Dagsavisen editorialized that “if you’re a person in a powerful position, you can’t expect that it only matters to you who you sleep with.” The paper noted how Traavik has admitted and apologized for the romantic relationships he had in Indonesia, and denied that they have had any influence on his role and priorities as ambassador. Dagsavisen added, however, that “corruption experts don’t necessarily agree.”

Andersen, UD’s spokesman as director of communications, claims the ministry has handled the case properly and tried to be as open as it can be. has also posed a string of questions which Andersen has answered as follows:

— Why hasn’t UD contacted the police (as urged by lawyer Stenmark) to obtain its evaluation of whether any misappropriation of funds has occurred? And does UD still have no intention of reporting this to the police?

— UD has not reported the case to the police. We have followed the rules and guidelines that apply for following up this type of case. The conclusion of our examinations are that Traavik was called home from his position in Jakarta and had to give up his title.

— Some UD employees wonder why (the ministry’s chief administrator) Wegger Christian Strømmen and Foreign Minister Børge Brende are remaining so quiet. (Both have declined requests for inteviews.) Can we expect any response from them? And if not, why not?

— I speak on behalf of the ministry as communications chief in this case.

— Can you comment on why Norway’s national security authority (NSM)  wasn’t alerted to the Traavik case? VG has reported that while other UD employees have been stripped of their security clearance after getting romantically involved with foreigners, Traavik seems to have received different treatment. If so, why?

— I will in the strongest of terms reject claims that Traavik has received different treatment. The same regulations form the basis (for the ministry’s reaction).

— Repeating VG’s question: Did Traavik inform the ministry about his relations with the three women in Indonesia, before the embassy received an email from the husband of one of them (in May of last year)? According to NSM, he likely should have, because of the potential for extortion (utpressing).

— UD has handled this case in line with our routines and the guidelines that apply for our employees. The conclusion on the case was that Traavik was called home and had to give up his title. Berglund



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