Prime minister fined and agrees to pay

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NEWS ANALYSIS: “The law is the same for everyone, but not everyone is the same,” said a local Norwegian police chief, Ole B Sæverud, on Friday. That’s why only Prime Minister Erna Solberg is being fined (NOK 20,000) in connection with her 60th birthday party, arranged by her husband, that violated her own government’s strict Corona containment rules.

This was the photo Prime Minister Erna Solberg published herself on social media, after her birthday weekend in Geilo with her husband, Sindre Finnes, and other close family members. Now she’s been fined for breaking her own government’s rules because more than 10 gathered to honour her. PHOTO: Facebook screen grab

“Solberg is the country’s foremost elected official, and has, on several occasions, fronted the government’s decisions on measures to fight the pandemic,” Sæverud said during a digital press conference broadcast live on national TV.

It would therefore be wrong, Sæverud claimed, if the presence of 13 people at a family dinner party (three more than the national maximum of 10 at the time) didn’t have any consequences for Solberg as prime minister. That, police concluded after their investigation into the gathering, could undermine public respect for the Corona rules in place.

Solberg readily accepted her fine Friday afternoon. “Yes, I’ve already said that if the police determined that we have broken the rules, when the family arranged a dinner, that I would of course accept a fine,” Solberg told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK). “I have no intention of appealing that.” She noted that she had spoken with police about what actually happened in connection with the dinner, and was ready to pay her fine: “I think it’s important that if I have broken the rules, I should pay a fine just like others would have to in such a situation.”

Police Chief Sæverud acknowledged that it was Solberg’s husband, Sindre Finnes, who invited family members to the dinner, and that the management of the high-end Hallingstuene restaurant in Geilo was responsible for carrying it out. They had even arranged seating at a variety of small tables and made sure all guests sat a meter apart, while two police bodyguards sat just outside the room. Neither of the bodyguards reacted to the allegedly illegal “arrangement” taking place under their noses, and police didn’t evaluate their role in the controversy that erupted after NRK first reported on the alleged birthday violations a few weeks later.

Neither Finnes nor the restaurant were fined, however, only Solberg. Finnes was issued a warning that he had violated the law but was excused from criminal responsibility. Charges were dropped against the restaurant’s management, which  claimed they’d followed the same anti-infection procedures they’d had in place all winter. Sæverud warned, though, that “if we had been on the scene while the party was going on, we would have clarified the regulations and perhaps ordered that the festivities cease, if there was acute danger of infection.”

Asked whether Solberg thinks it’s reasonable that she’s being fined just because she’s prime minister, Solberg said she didn’t want “to get into a discussion about the police evaluation of the law and the circumstances around” her case.

Ole B Sæverud, chief of Norway’s Sør-Øst Police District in which Geilo is located, delivered the conclusion of the police investigation into Prime Minister Erna Solberg’s 60th birthday party Friday morning. The digital press conference was carried live on national TV, like here on NRK. PHOTO: NRK screen grab

The ultimate irony in Solberg’s case was that she couldn’t even attend the 60th birthday dinner held in her honour on that last Friday evening in February. An acute eye infection had forced her to seek medical treatment back in Oslo earlier in the day, and she didn’t return to the mountain resort of Geilo until the next day. Too many of her family members also gathered for takeaway sushi that Saturday evening in the couple’s rented holiday apartment, and she has since apologized profusely for that. Police didn’t issue any fines for Saturday’s sushifest, though, because a limit of 10 people on gatherings in private homes was a government “recommendation” at the time, and not a regulation.

Prime Minister Solberg ended up with 20,000-kroner fine (equal to around USD 2,400) simply because she’s prime minister, Sæverud admitted. The police contended that they needed to react with such a penalty in order to uphold public confidence in the government’s anti-infection regulations during a “national health crisis.” Even though her husband organized her relatively modest 60th birthday celebration (much grander public and private parties would have been in normal times), Sæverud noted that Solberg herself was aware of the plans and approved them.

Reaction was swift, with newspaper VG‘s commentator calling the fine “just incredible … just because Erna is Erna.” VG noted that many top politicians in many other countries have violated regulations and recommendations without being convicted as Solberg has. “She’ll have to try to explain this when she meets fellow government leaders on Zoom,” wrote commentator Astrid Meland. The police “needed to set an example,” Meland added, while many indignant Norwegians and opposition politicians had seized on her misstep after a year of otherwise battling the Corona crisis successfully. Norway has some of the strictest anti-Corona rules in all of Europe, and among the lowest infection rates in the world.

It nonetheless seemed important to punish the prime minister while the restaurant and her guests avoided penalties. That’s also raising questions and new debate over the enforceability of Norway’s anti-Corona measures. Police in Oslo, for example, have fined both the hosts of so-called “arrangements” and their guests when they’ve cracked down on parties in progress. Arrangers have been fined NOK 20,000 and guests NOK 10,ooo, many of whom can now ask why Solberg’s guests weren’t fined, too.

There’s been disagreement among legal experts over whether Solberg’s 60th birthday celebrations violated the Corona rules. Hans Fredrik Marthinussen, a law professor at the University of Bergen, has claimed they did and expected that would have consequences. Professor Alf Petter Høgberg of the Institute for Public Law at the University of Oslo has claimed it was not illegal to gather more than 10 in a rented apartment.

“The biggest problem here is a lack of clarity and logic around the rules,” Høgberg wrote on social media. “It’s ironic that it’s the prime minister who tests interpretation of the limits.” Others added that the government itself now needs to “clean up” its own jumble of ever-changing pandemic prohibitions.

“How can Norwegians be expected to follow all the rules when not even the government understands them?” asked VG commentator Meland. “Now the prime minister must not only apologize and pay up, she must clean up messy regulations. And never again head off on a winter holiday during a pandemic.” Berglund