Trial uncomfortable for Progress Party

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NEWS ANALYSIS: A sensational court trial that began in Oslo this week directly involves top politicians for the conservative Progress Party, and reveals both close ties and conflicts amongst them and their partners. It’s all been branded as “uncomfortable” by one of Progress’ many former government ministers, who’s already been shown to have leaked information to the media when it suited her party’s political purposes.

Former Justice Minister Tor Mikkel Wara posed with Ingvil Smines Tybring-Gjedde in January 2019, when the two Progress Party colleagues both presented a new “National Strategy for Digital Security” just after she’d been appointed a minister, too. He was under threat at the time and had to resign two months later, when his partner was charged with making threats. Tybring-Gjedde, meanwhile, had already helped Wara’s partner leak photos of the couple’s vandalized car to Norwegian media. PHOTO: Justisdepartementet

Ingvil Smines Tybring-Gjedde served as Norway’s government minister in charge of security and preparedness from January 2019 until January 2020, when her Progress Party withdrew from Prime Minister Erna Solberg’s government. She served alongside Norway’s justice minister at the time, Progress’ Tor Mikkel Wara, until he resigned in March 2019 after his live-in partner Laila Anita Bertheussen was arrested and charged with lodging threats against both Wara, Tybring-Gjedde and others, but making it look like an anti-racist theater group was behind the threats and vandalism.

The theater group had mounted a play called Ways of Seeing that aimed to portray racist networks. It greatly upset Bertheussen, because it included photos of the Oslo house she shares with Wara. Prosecutors think that prompted her to seek revenge against Oslo’s Black Box Theater by trying to frame it for the threats and vandalism that Oslo police and the state intelligence agency PST took very seriously. Wara himself had called the threats “an attack” on Norway’s democracy, and was among those “shocked” when his own partner of 26 years was charged.

On Wednesday, meanwhile, prosecutors presented evidence of electronic communication between Bertheussen and Tybring-Gjedde shortly after the first round of vandalism at the couple’s home. Bertheussen had sent photos of the couple’s vandalized car, which had been tagged with a swastika and the word “racist,” and asked Tybring-Gjedde whether she knew anyone (in the media) to whom she could leak them. Tybring-Gjedde later responded: “NRK is taking them. They’re dropping everything …” to cover the news that the justice minister’s home had been compromised.

Right-wing network
Newspaper Aftenposten reported on Thursday that Tybring-Gjedde, who’s been in the courtroom this week, declined to comment about her contribution to the leaks. It was also revealed that she had been part of a social media group including Bertheussen, Progress politician Line Miram Sandberg (ex-wife of another justice minister for Progress, Per Sandberg, who’d had to resign after traveling to Iran with his new Iranian partner) and Rita Karlsen of the right-wing and anti-immigration Human Rights Service. Tybring-Gjedde will be called to testify later in the trial, since she and her husband Christian Tybring-Gjedde (a right-wing Member of Parliament for Progress who has nominated US President Donald Trump for a Nobel Peace Prize) also later received threats in the mail, allegedly from Bertheussen.

It’s a trial involving several of the Progress Party’s most right-wing politicians (the wife of yet another Progress justice minister, the ultra-conservative Per-Willy Amundsen was also part of the social media group), with prosecutors acting quickly to expose Bertheussen’s network. She clearly wanted lots of media coverage of the vandalism and threats lodged between December 2018 and March 2019, when she was arrested. Prosecutors also revealed that it was one of Wara’s former colleagues at the lobbying and communications firm First House who helped Bertheussen link news of how she’d reported Black Box Theater to the police earlier in the fall of 2018. After her arrest, though, she has shunned media coverage and won’t allow any photos of herself in the courtroom.

Both ex-ministers called to testify
The media coverage itself, meanwhile, threatened to jeopardize the investigation by state police and PST, both of which ultimately report to the justice minister who’d been threatened. Wara initially tried to maintain business as usual during the three months of threats against him, but he immediately went on leave when his partner was arrested and resigned two weeks later.

Wara has been in the courtroom, too, and will also testify since he was a target of the threats. He has stood by Bertheussen’s side, but it was revealed in court on Wednesday that the couple quarreled over her insistence to publish a commentary bashing the theater production that also criticized the government for failing to do the same. “I can be flåsete,” Bertheussen testified in court, using the Norwegian word for “flippant, loose-mouthed and disrespectful.”

Defiant defendant
The 55-year-old defendant who denies all the charges against her had been given 45 minutes to speak freely at the outset, which she used to describe her background from Northern Norway who move to Oslo to attend high school. Media commentators noted how she appeared self-assured and defiant during her opening remarks, harshly criticizing PST and stressing that prosecutors have “no DNA, no fingerprints and no witnesses who can tie me to this case.” She blasted PST for allegedly leaking information to the media, even though she’d done the same herself, and pointedly told the judge that PST seemed to ignore that she was the victim in the case.

It was when the questioning began and she was confronted with leaking information, allegedly turning off her home’s security cameras and even setting up a false Facebook profile under the name of “Anita Berg” to criticize Black Box Theater, that she reportedly suffered memory lapses, downplayed quarreling with Wara and and went on the defenseive. She admitted to being impertinent by nature, and seemed not to care whether her actions could damage her partner’s position as justice minister, or the government.

On Thursday, as the trial entered its third day, she denied she had prevented PST from maintaining round-the-clock surveillance of their home, even though Wara had told PST she wouldn’t allow it. “It’s a lie that I said ‘no’ to surveillance,” she claimed, suggesting she merely objected to camera angles.

The trial, which is receiving broad coverage in Norway, is scheduled to run until November 13. It’s clearly not only “uncomfortable” but also embarrassing for the Progress Party. It has sunk further in public opinion polls since leaving the government, but Prime Minister Erna Solberg still needs its support in Parliament and has promised it will have “considerable influence” on her next state budget proposal. Solberg told Aftenposten that Progress was also still welcome to rejoin her government, despite all the trouble it’s caused over the past few years and is still causing, now as part of the opposition and in the courtroom.

NewsInEnglish.no/Nina Berglund