Norway’s state police unit Kripos has charged “several” people in connection with the attempted assassination of William Nygaard in 1993. Nygaard headed Oslo publishing firm Aschehoug at the time and the attack was tied to Nygaard’s decision to publish a Norwegian version of Salman Rushdie’s book Satanic Verses. That made Nygaard a target following a fatwa (death sentence) issued by Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini against Rushdie and others promoting a book Muslims viewed as blasphemous.
“We have reasonable grounds for suspicion, and believe it’s very important to clear up this case because of its implications for Norwegian society,” Inspector Anne Cecilie Dessarud of Kripos told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) Tuesday morning.
It was also important for Norwegian police and public prosecutors to act before Thursday, when the case would have expired under Norway’s statute of limitations. Nygaard was shot three times outside his home in Oslo’s Slemdal neighbourhood on the morning of October 11, 1993, meaning that a 25-year statute of limitations would have made it too late to hold anyone responsible if the deadline passed with no charges.
“The case won’t go out of date now,” Nygaard’s attorney Vidar Strømme stated on NRK’s national radio newscasts Tuesday morning. Strømme denied the police charges were a desperate attempt to keep the case alive, believing the police have finally tracked down those behind the attempted murder of his client. Filing charges will allow the police investigation to continue.
Oslo police had dropped the investigation in 2007 for lack of evidence, but reopened it in 2009 after public criticism tied to the probe. The attack had severely shaken Norway and challenged the country’s adherence to freedom of expression. The investigation was taken over by the state police unit.
Its investigators have since spent years trying to find out who carried out the attack. While refusing to reveal details, they now claim they have identified and charged an unspecified number of suspects, all of whom currently find themselves abroad.
“I view this as a long step in the right direction,” Nygaard himself told NRK Tuesday morning. “I hope the police can now finally find out who wanted to kill me.”
Nygaard, who has since retired from the publishing firm that’s now run by his son, was full of praise for the police investigation and not least that they also have been taking what he’s always viewed as an attack on freedom of expression so seriously. The now-75-year-old Nygaard said he found that “very reassuring.” By charging the suspects with both attempted murder and attacking laws and values in a manner that could harm Norway’s democracy, prosecutors can also seek Norway’s longest prison term of 21 years if a court were to find the suspects guilty.
Nygaard claimed he was “not so interested in getting the assailants punished, but I want to know who there were and who was behind them. I want to know what connections they may have had to the regime in Iran.”
Dessarud said that the goal is to put the suspects on trial in a Norwegian court. That won’t be easy since it’s likely to involve requests for extradition that may not be honoured. She wouldn’t identify which country where the suspects are believed to be residing, nor would she say whether any of them lived in Norway at the time of shooting. NRK could report only that Norwegian prosecutors have charged “the suspected gunman and his accomplices,” all of whom are believed to be connected to a “fundamentalist milieu.”
Police reportedly have received many new tips and information. Kripos investigators stress that they have no reason to believe the attempted murder of Nygaard was “motivated by factors other than Nygaard’s role as publisher of Rushdie’s book.” Police were still calling for tips, while Dessarud told reporters that “we want to do everything that’s realistically possible to clear up this case.”
Publishing firm Aschehoug, meanwhile, called the new charges against specific suspects “both remarkable and positive,” not least since police stressed that the assassination attempt amounted to “an attack on the freedom of the printed word.” Mads Nygaard, who took over as Aschehoug’s chief when his father stepped down, said the charges “send a clear signal that freedom of expression is a right that’s stands strong in Norway, and that threats against it shall be fought, also in court.”