Tor Mikkel Wara was justice minister when his live-in partner allegedly made false threats against both him, herself, their home and some political allies. On Thursday he had to testify in the court case against her, but gave her a possible alibi and came out strongly against the very police and intelligence agencies he oversaw as late as last year.
The entire court case is one of the most unusual to ever come up in Norway, and important because the charges against Wara’s partner Laila Anita Bertheussen are so serious. Wara himself had initially called the series of threats and vandalism to their home and car between December 2018 and March 2019 “an attack on democracy,” because he, as a top government official, was targeted. That led to her indictment for, among other things, attacks on the highest levels of state operation. If found guilty she faces up to 10 years in prison.
Close family members aren’t obligated to testify against each other, but Wara is considered a victim in this case. He spoke with police when the actual attacks of vandalism, arson and threats received in the mail were carried out, also after Bertheussen was arrested and charged. Police believe her alleged motive was revenge against an Oslo theater group that had portrayed the couple’s home in an anti-racist play.
Wara was confronted in court on Thursday with his own initial and nationally broadcast assessment of the attacks, made three months before his own domestic partner of 26 years was charged with carrying them out. “As justice minister, I didn’t know what else I should say than that it was an attack on democracy,” Wara testified on Thursday. “I didn’t think it was a personal attack, but rather an attack on the political processes behind (his) Progress Party’s politics.”
Noise in the night
He testified that he didn’t think Bertheussen was guilty of drawing, during the middle of an early December night, a swastika on their car and using the same thick red felt pen to write the words “rasist” and “rasisit” (viewed as a deliberate misspelling) on both the car and the wall of their home at Røa in Oslo. Police later found a thick red felt pen behind some books in the couple’s home that they believe she used.
He testified that he’d woken up that night because of an unexplained noise, claimed that Bertheussen was laying beside him in bed, and that he got up to see what may have caused the noise. Prosecutor Frederik Ranke noted that Wara had told police at the time of the attack that he couldn’t remember whether Bertheussen, who has claimed she sleeps poorly and is often up during the night, was in bed.
Now Wara claims she was in bed (not outside tagging their home and car) and her defense attorney John Christian Elden told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) that he views that as “unusually good alibi.” He rejects prosecutors’ claims Bertheussen carried out the vandalism in the middle of the night. “He (Wara) confirms that she was lying next to him in bed when he heard a noise that could have been those who were behind the attack,” Elden claimed.
Prosecutor Ranke, who has earlier presented technical evidence from Bertheussen’s phone that she was up during that night, totally disagreed. “We also read aloud from a police hearing where he said he would have noticed if she’d come back to bed, which he could explain in court,” Ranke told NRK, “and he couldn’t say whether he’d seen her in bed.”
‘On the offensive’
Wara was otherwise described by NRK’s crime commentator as “surprisingly on the offensive,” answering questions quickly, loudly and clearly after he’d stated firmly that he wanted to testify. His background in politics and the public relations branch was clear as well, noted commentator Olav Rønneberg. When Ranke asserted that Wara had never categorically claimed that his wife was not behind the attacks, calling that merely “improbable,” Wara defended Bertheussen.
“I don’t think she’s behind any of this,” Wara testified. He also said her arrest in March of last year “came as a shock, a huge surprise.” It ended up forcing his resignation as justice minister and potentially spoiling a political career that he’d only just resumed. He has since returned to the public relations agency where he’d worked before the conservative Progress Party’s leader Siv Jensen tapped him to make a political comeback as justice minister.
Prosecutors ran through all seven instances of various vandalism and threats, from on December 6, 2018 until March 10, when a fire set in the trunk of the family’s car prompted police to finally connect Bertheussen to all the attacks. In addition to her alleged lust for revenge against the theater production, Bertheussen has been found to have leaked photos and information tied to the attacks to the media and been active in right-wing, anti-immigration discussion groups. It’s all involved several members of the Progress Party and been branded as “uncomfortable” by Wara’s former fellow government minister Ingvil Smines Tybring-Gjedde.
Bertheussen also has a criminal record that appears likely to be brought up as the lengthy trial proceeds. She was convicted three times during the 1980s, before she met Wara, in cases involving theft, fraud and forgery. All three convictions ended with short prison sentences, two of them suspended.
Wara lashed out at PST for its own alleged leaks of Bertheussen’s prior convictions. While he refused to characterize his own partner’s leaks to the media at an early phase in the police investigation, he called PST’s alleged leaks “shameful” and aimed at influencing the court to paint a picture of his partner that she can’t defend herself against.
The trial is set to continue all autumn.