Rape accusation haunts oil minister

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Norway’s Oil & Energy Minister Terje Søviknes was back in the news this weekend, regarding an issue that has little to do with his oil politics. It’s been 18 years since he was caught in scandal and had to admit having sex with an intoxicated teenager at a Progress Party meeting in January 2000. Now she’s both speaking out and accusing him of rape, emboldened by the “MeToo” campaign against sexual harassment and abuse of power.

PHOTO: OED/NTB Scanpix

“I want to be a voice for everyone who’s subjected to assault by people with power,” the now-34-year-old woman told newspaper Aftenposten in an exclusive interview. “They shouldn’t wait as long as I have to speak out.”

She actually did speak to journalists from state broadcaster NRK’s documentary program Brennpunkt back in 2001. She then withdrew, lapsing into drug and alcohol abuse, and crime to finance her substance abuse. She has also suffered a string of psychological problems.

In addition to speaking at length with Aftenposten, the woman is applying for financial compensation from the state, arguing that Søviknes raped her even though police at the time found no criminal evidence and dropped the case in 2001. Her lawyer is arguing that the sex between the then-36-year-old Søviknes and the 16-year-old girl was not consensual and led to her psychological injuries.

Her application for compensation will, if successful, leave taxpayers covering the bill for Søviknes’ alleged assault. He’s long been apologetic, and has claimed repeatedly that the sex in his hotel room at the annual national meeting of the Progress Party’s youth group FPU should never have happened. He flatly denies it amounted to rape, though, claiming it was consensual. She told NRK in 2001 that when he saw her in passing the next day, he even said takk for i går (literally, “thanks for yesterday,” a standard Norwegian greeting the day after a party).

“That topped the cake,” she told NRK 17 years ago, when the incident became national news in Norway. “It made me sick. There was nothing for him to thank for.”

Sex with another Progress Party man, too
Now she’s confirmed to Aftenposten, and written in her appeal for victims’ compensation, that Søviknes wasn’t the only man whom she claims assaulted her that evening. She said that after the alleged rape in Søviknes’ hotel room, a delegate from the party’s youth group found her crying in the hallway. He escorted her to the room of another Progress Party politician, who was a Member of Parliament at the time but not identified by Aftenposten.

“I told him (the MP) that Søviknes had harassed me, I didn’t dare say what actually happened,” she told Aftenposten. “This was a man I relied upon.” She felt she found comfort from him, only to end up having sex with him, too. She now claims she was still so drunk that she was incapable of saying yes or no.

“He exploited the fact that I was young, drunk and in a vulnerable situation,” she told Aftenposten. He was later questioned by police after the Søviknes scandal broke, and reportedly confirmed having sex with the girl but claimed she was an active participant. He refused comment when questioned by Aftenposten.

Different versions of events
The woman says she had also initially felt safe with Søviknes, who was 20 years older than her and deputy leader of the Progress Party at the time: “I looked up to him. He was both deputy leader and a mayor (of Os, in Hordaland), he had a live-in partner and was twice as old as me.”

Their versions differ of what happened in his hotel room in Langesund, where the FPU meeting was being held. After police dropped the case and no formal rape charges were file, the woman says she backed off, only to be reminded constantly of the incident every time Søviknes was in the news.

In addition to admitting to having sex with the 16-year-old and apologizing for it, Søviknes was stripped of all roles he had in the Progress Party, lost his top spot on the party’s nominations for seats in Parliament and he withdrew from national politics. He continued as mayor of Os, where he still had support from local constituents.

Ministerial post sparked anger
In 2016, though, he was named minister in charge of oil and energy in the government coalition made up of his Progress Party and the Conservatives. His appointment raised eyebrows, because of what was still referred to as one of the party’s sex scandals. It angered the 34-year-old woman, who claims to have fallen back into a depression and is now speaking out. Prime Minister Erna Solberg of the Conservatives has publicly said she can never forgive what Søviknes did, but both she and Progress Party boss Siv Jensen claim everyone deserves a second chance to be trusted.

Søviknes himself told Aftenposten that he “can understand” that the woman “has a need to tell her story,” especially after the “MeToo” campaign. “And I hope that what she describes, and granting the interview, can help her move on in life. If this can help her, it’s good.”

He had no direct comment on her application for victim compensation. “It’s sad to read about the many and complex challenges the girl has had both in her youth and later,” he told Aftenposten. He still maintains that the sex they had was consensual and that he did not force himself upon her. He has maintained that a power struggle within the Progress Party at the time distracted him, and prompted him to declare “that I hadn’t done anything wrong.” Today he regrets that, and admits that he should have taken responsibility for “what happened.” He also acknowledges that his position as a well-known politician can make it harder for the woman to “move on,” simply because he is such a public person.

Case will come up again and again
Søviknes is also aware, and accepts, that the case will continue “to come up all the time” because he has chosen to remain in politics. He says he waited to return to national politics, when he was granted a seat on the Progress Party’s national board again in 2014, until his own children were old enough for him “to clarify the case for them and what it was all about.”

“I have chosen to face all this, and I have to do that now, too,” Søviknes told Aftenposten. The woman said that after “MeToo,” she now feels that “I have a chance to be heard, that the responsibility will be placed where it should, on the men. I have felt so much shame, and that all this was my fault.” She feels it was their fault, too.

Her lawyer agrees. “There is a qualified probability here that a rape occurred,” writes the woman’s lawyer, Jannicke Keller-Fløystad, in the application for compensation. She pointed to the age difference and power imbalance between the two, and cited legal precedent in Norway. But why apply now, after so many years?

“It’s first now that the woman has understood the extent of the psychological damage she’s suffered,” Keller-Fløystad told Aftenposten. She also thinks the police made a mistake in dropping the case 18 years ago, the most serious of which was abuse of the position of a public official to achieve immoral or obscene gain. Søviknes disputes that, claiming that he was not at the party meeting in his position as mayor of Os or holding any other public office.

Progress Party leader Siv Jensen is used to facing questions, like here in Parliament as finance minister. She ducked questions, however, on how long she’s known that two Progress Party men, not just Oil & Energy Minister Terje Søviknes, had sex with a teenager during the party’s youth group meeting in 2000. PHOTO: Stortinget

Progress Party leader Siv Jensen, who also serves as Norway’s finance minister, won’t say how long she’s known that it wasn’t just Søviknes who had sex with the girl, but that another party politician was involved as well. No charges were ever filed against him, nor was he identified or stripped of his positions like Søviknes was.

“There have been rumours within the party for awhile,” said Jensen, who’s also been dealing with another sex scandal involving MP Ulf Leirstein. He can’t be relieved of his seat in Parliament, though, since it’s an elected office.

She stressed that Søviknes has suffered the consequences of what he’s called the “frighteningly stupid” thing he did in January 2000: “He lost everything. It took a long time for Terje to win back anything that could be considered confidence. It took a long time before I had confidence in Terje again, before the party did, too. He has built up that confidence over a long, long time.” She added that it “must be possible” to make amends, and she defends her choice, with Solberg’s support, that he become oil minister.

Asked whether it was wrong that the case had consequences for Søviknes but not for the other man, Jensen claimed she couldn’t answer: “It’s difficult for me to get into matters that happened many years ago. It would be wrong for me to do that.”

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund