One of the most sensational trials regarding alleged abuse of power in Norway got underway in the Nord-Troms County Court on Tuesday. Former government minister and county governor Svein Ludvigsen pleaded not guilty to charges he misused his powerful political positions to obtain sexual favours from young male asylum seekers.
The arrest, subsequent charges and then indictment of Ludvigsen last year sent shockwaves through the government and among other elected politicians, who’ve already been under pressure from the “MeToo” campaign against sexual harassment. The indictment filed against Ludvigsen amounted to the some of the most serious charges against an elected official in Norway since the trials following World War II.
“This is an especially serious indictment,” wrote legal expert and courtroom commentator Inge D Hanssen in newspaper Aftenposten on Tuesday. Hanssen noted how Ludvigsen not only is a former deputy leader of the Conservative Party who served as its fisheries minister, but also served as “the king’s man” in his native Troms County in Northern Norway after having been appointed fylkesmann (county governor). He was also named, in 2005, as a Commander of St Olav’s Order, the equivalent of being knighted in Norway.
Alleged ‘private agenda’
According to the indictment handed down after months of police investigation last year, Ludvigsen also had what Hanssen called “a completely private agenda” as county governor. Prosecutor Tor Børge Nordmo claims Ludvigsen misused his position to obtain sex from three male young asylum seekers who’d arrived alone in Norway, by giving them the impression he could arrange a home, residence permission and even citizenship for them, or deny them such.
Ludvigsen’s defense attorney Kai Vaag had already announced before the trial began that his client would deny all charges of sexual misconduct against him and claim that there was nothing illegal regarding his relationship with the three young asylum seekers, one of whom is also mildly mentally retarded.
“Svein Ludvigsen will give the court an open and honest clarification of his relationship to those who have filed complaints against him,” Vaag told news bureau NTB. “He distances himself from all the complaints and will answer all questions regarding sexual relations.”
That opened up the possibility that Ludvigsen will acknowledge sexual contact between him and the three refugees, but contend it was consensual. All the young men involved were over the age of sexual consent in Norway, which is 16.
The prosecution, meanwhile, maintains that Ludvigsen himself actively visited institutions that were under the administration of his County Governor’s office and sought out the young men. He’s charged with having tricked them into believing he had the power to both give and take from them a future in Norway, and exploited their vulnerability to obtain sexual contact with them.
Prosecutor Nordmo said in court Tuesday morning that the judges hearing the case must determine whether there has been sexual contact between Ludvigsen and the three refugees, and whether Ludvigsen intentionally misused his position in at least three separate cases.
Prosecutors first got involved after one of the young refugees finally told a public employee in December 2017 about his apparently unwanted contact with Ludvigsen. The employee felt compelled to report the alleged sexual misconduct to superiors, even though the refugee himself did not want to involve police.
The complaint was soon linked to earlier complaints against Ludvigsen, who allegedly had been involved in sexual contact with another young asylum seeker as early as in the summer of 2011. Prosecutors said they will present evidence of how Ludvigsen took the various refugees to his home, his hytte (holiday cottage), and a hotel. Photos will also be presented, while Nordmo already read aloud in court from text communication between Ludvigsen and one of the refugees who had asked for some money. Ludvigsen responded that “you can get a burger. It depends on what I get in return, by the way.”
Testimony began Tuesday afternoon with one of the refugees whom Ludvigsen had met during an inspection of the institution where he was living. He described how Ludvigsen had expressed interest in him and his situation, told him he was “a friend of the king.”
Ludvigsen’s interest alleged led to him being groped by Ludvigsen in the backseat of Ludvigsen’s car and assaulted during a trip to Ludvigsen’s hytta. “He said it should be a secret between him and me,” the young man testified while fighting back tears. “I was scared, and angry with myself that I’d gone with him to the hytta. I wanted to run, but didn’t know where.” He said Ludvigsen told him he could find him a place to live, “but I didn’t want to live in a place where he could find me.”
The trial is scheduled to extend over two-and-a-half weeks, with prosecutors calling 35 witnesses and the defense calling in six witnesses, most of the latter expected to be character witnesses. If found guilty as charged, Ludvigsen faces up to 12 years in prison.