Prime Minister Erna Solberg and Finance Minister Siv Jensen faced the press Thursday to say they were shocked by the arrest of Justice Minister Tor Mikkel Wara’s partner earlier in the day. Wara was immediately put on leave, with Jensen saying he’s “in shock” himself.
“I think everyone can understand that this is a very difficult situation for everyone,” said a clearly distressed Solberg at a hastily called press conference Thursday afternoon.
Solberg, who was busy getting ready for her Conservative Party’s annual national meeting that starts on Friday, said that the charges that Wara’s own domestic partner staged a string of vandalism, arson and threats against their home “came as a shock to me, and to the entire government.”
Jensen, leader of the Progress Party to which Wara also adheres, appeared exhausted and extremely sad. She’s a longtime colleague of Wara’s and was instrumental in bringing him back into politics just last year, at the very highest levels.
Now he’s grappling with the arrest of his domestic partner of 24 years, Laila Anita Bertheussen, who’s suspected of being behind five incidents of vandalism and threats against their own family and home in Oslo. She’s specifically charged with setting fire to Wara’s car while it stood parked outside their home last weekend, and police suspect she’s also behind the vandalism in December that left their home and car tagged with swastikas and the Norwegian word for “racist.” It was misspelled (rasisit, instead of rasist) making it look like it was written by someone who doesn’t have a good grasp of the Norwegian language.
The Oslo County Court also decided on Thursday that the home Wara shares with Bertheussen could be ransacked by police, as their investigation into the incidents of vandalism and arson continues. Bjørnland said the court agreed there was reason to suspect that Bertheussen was behind the incidents.
As justice minister, Wara himself is responsible for Norway’s state police and PST itself. Both law enforcement agencies have been under pressure, and even criticized, for having failed to track down suspects earlier. The incidents raised great concern over the safety of politicians and the threats against them and democracy itself.
Bjørnland said investigators from both PST and the Oslo Police had not been in contact with Wara regarding the suspicions against his partner. Nor were they responsible for informing him of her arrest, so she couldn’t say how he reacted. Wara himself has gone into seclusion with his family and closest friends, Solberg said, and would not respond to questions from the media. NRK reported late Thursday night that he was, however, being questioned by police Thursday evening.
Solberg and Jensen were left to grant him official leave, with Solberg announcing that the Progress Party’s transport minister, Jon Georg Dale, would be appointed as acting justice minister by King Harald V on Friday. It was Solberg who was informed of Bertheussen’s arrest by police, and she was the one who had to call Wara into her office around 3pm Thursday afternoon to break the news of his partner’s arrest. Jensen was also present at the meeting.
“This is a tragedy for him and his family,” Solberg told reporters. “He asked to be put on leave so that he could take care of his family.” Asked whether it will be possible for him to return to his post, Solberg said she could not and would not speculate on that. A commentator for state broadcaster NRK said it would be difficult, not least after police have ransacked the justice minister’s home. Relations between them would be awkward at best.
Jensen said she was also shocked by the day’s developments. Wara is the latest in a string of Progress Party ministers who have had to resign or go on leave because of various conflicts or trouble. In this case, though, it doesn’t appear Wara was brought down by anything he did. He’s known as a more moderate and professional Progress Party politician who left top politics in the 1990s because he thought Progress was too hard-line and tough on immigration. His partner Bertheussen, however, has been connected with the far right and organizations known to be firmly opposed to immigration. She is not a politician herself.
Jensen also declined to speculate on what will happen now. “This isn’t the day to draw conclusions,” she said. “As the prime minister said, we are all in a state of shock right now. We don’t know much more and have to let the police do their job.”
If Wara’s partner either admits to mounting all the alleged treats herself or is ultimately indicted for them, it will be a huge and embarrassing setback for the Progress Party and its far-right flank. Bertheussen had already filed charges herself against a local theater production of a play that featured photos of the justice minister’s home, but police dropped the case. The theater also won support for its right to artistic expression.
Solberg had strongly criticized the theater herself just this week, however, as concern continue to rise over the alleged threats to Wara and his family. Solberg refused to apologize to the theater on Thursday, whose director had already claimed the vandalism and threats were false and staged.
Politicians reluctant to comment now
Most top politicians and party leaders seemed as shocked as everyone else, and reluctant to comment. While the Reds leader Bjørnar Moxnes said Solberg should evaluate whether Wara could continue as justice minister, he was quickly rebuked by the leader of the often like-minded Greens Party Une Bastholm. “Now Moxnes has crossed the line,” she told newspaper VG. “If he had been in a similar situation, I don’t think he’d appreciate political opponents running to the press with demands for his resignation before we even know his role in the case.” Bastholm praised how PST and the Oslo Police are independent enough to have done their work and felt free to arrest the partner of the justice minister who has political control over both.
Olaug Bollestad, acting leader of the Christian Democrats party that’s often at odds with Wara’s Progress Party, simply called the situation “a family tragedy, and not a day to draw conclusions.” Center Party leader Trygve Slagsvold Vedum, who had called the alleged threats against Wara an attack on democracy, had no initial comment at all. Nor did MP Karin Andersen of the Socialist Left party (SV), who’d been among those criticizing police for the failure to solve the mystery of the incidents at Wara’s home. The president of Norway’s Parliament Tone Wilhelmsen Trøen also declined comment.
Carl I Hagen, the Progress Party’s outspoken former leader who adheres to its far-right wing, had just a short comment on the arrest of Wara’s partner: “I’m in shock. I can’t understand this at all. I’m just flabberghasted by the latest development in this case. I hope PST (which arrested and charged Wara’s partner) has made a mistake.”