New minister faces shootings, tragedy

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Emilie Enger Mehl has had to hit the ground running in her new job as Norway’s justice minister in charge of both police and the courts. She’s now dealing with an unusual string of recent shootings in the Norwegian capital, in addition to the tragedy in Kongsberg that left five dead and three wounded.

Norway’s new justice minister, Emilie Enger Mehl of the Center Party, has attracted lots of media attention since she took over her post in the midst of national tragedy and a string of shootings in Oslo. PHOTO: Justis- og beredskapsdepartementet

“We can’t allow criminals to put innocent people in danger,” Mehl told reporters earlier this week. “Our neighbourhoods must remain safe.”

Oslo has recorded eight shootings around the city just in the past two months. Police could report on Wednesday that they now have suspects and arrest orders in the last two cases: a shooting Monday night at Stovner in Oslo that left a young man critically wounded, and a shooting on October 7 at Mortensrud on Oslo’s southeast side that left 20-year-old Hamse Hashi Adan dead.

One man had already been arrested and charged in the shooting at Mortensrud. On Wednesday police identified two other suspects and confirmed that international warrants were out on both of them: brothers Valon and Visa Avdyli of Bærum. The Avdyli brothers have already served prison time following terrorism convictions and are believed to have traveled to Kosovo on October 9. They were not yet under suspicion when they left the the country, and since have denied through their attorney in Oslo that they have anything to do with the shootings.

Police also reported on Wednesday that they have a warrant out on a suspect in the shooting at Stovner, said to be a man in his 20s who has a police record. He’s been urged to turn himself in, but police were also conducting an “active search” for him.

The most recent shootings followed a rash of others in August that left six people seriously wounded. Victims included two teenage boys shot in a metro train at Skøyenåsen in Oslo, two men shot in an apartment building at Trosterud in Oslo’s Alna district, a man in his 20s shot near the Brynseng metro station in central Oslo and a 22-year-old man shot in the parking area under the Oslo Concert House in Vika. The 22-year-old was from Mortensrud and three alleged assailants are charged in that case.

Police don’t think all eight shootings are related but several are believed to have involved drug dealing and criminal gangs. They’ve posed a big challenge for police and their new national boss, Justice Minister Mehl, who also was immediately confronted by tragedy in Kongsberg during her first day on the job.

Justice Minister Mehl joined new Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre in visiting Kongsberg on their first full day in office, just after a man killed five people and wounded three others with both a bow and arrows and a knife. He’s now in custody at a psychiatric facility where it will be determined whether he’s fit to stand trial.  PHOTO: SMK/Anne Kristin Hjukse

“It’s extremely worrisome that we’ve had so many shootings just in the last two months,” Mehl told news bureau NTB this week. “Police have their full attention on these cases. At the same time it’s important to remember that there have been few such incidents in the capital over time. We still don’t see the trends here that we’ve seen in other countries.”

At the same time, she said she’s especially worried how some of the shootings have taken place in public areas, and in or near public transport and schools. She told NTB that she was setting up a meeting next week with officials from both the Oslo city government and the Oslo Police District, while the state government intends to strengthen efforts to control and disband criminal gangs and networks.

Some claim it’s become too easy to acquire weapons in Norway, where random street crime and shootings have always been rare. Jan Bøhler, a veteran Oslo politician who’s spent years trying to deal with criminal gangs in the capital, told newspaper Klassekampen that there already are “too many easily accessible weapons” in Oslo. There also are too many unresolved conflicts between criminal gangs, active efforts by some gangs to claim and secure their own territory, reluctance to cooperate with police and the police’s inability to close in on criminal networks and follow them consistently.

This week the 28-year-old Mehl, educated as a lawyer herself, was facing an entirely different challenge, after newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) ran a series of articles about the alleged threat posed by Russian research and offshore vessels in Norwegian waters. Some suspect they’re really spy ships, sent to chart infrastructure around oil platforms and energy cables in the North- and Norwegian Seas. Mehl is being called upon to examine how “activity that is legal can be used to damage our national security,” and how various sectors of the government cooperate and monitor the Russian activity.

National security and preparedness along with immigration issues, search and rescue operations and prisons are all part of the justice minister’s responsibilities. Mehl succeeds a string of justice ministers in the former Conservatives-led government who mostly came from the Progress Party and ran into various forms of trouble. Mehl directly succeeded another lawyer-turned-politician in the job, Monica Mæland of the Conservatives.

Mehl took over the justice minister’s post from Monica Mæland (left) of the Conservative Party. PHOTO: Justisdepartementet

Mæland candidly told Mehl that “you’re taking over in a very difficult situation,” referring to the tragedy in Kongsberg that stunned Norway on the evening before the new government assumed power. Questions continue to swirl around the brutal and deadly assaults in Kongsberg: The man in custody, a 38-year-old longtime resident of the small city, underwent questioning again earlier this week, but police could’t share many answers. Probes into the attacks and the police response are expected to take at least six months, while debate flew over why police, its intelligence unit PST and local psychiatric services didn’t do a better job of following up complaints about the assailant, who had a history of mental illness. Others contend that it’s almost impossible to predict how people can act, and that it would have been difficult to confine him without his consent.

Mehl claims she’s ready to follow up now, on the Kongsberg case, the shootings, security issues and the rest of the broad responsibility of the justice ministry. As a Member of Parliament for the Center Party, she’s been a member of both the justice- and foreign relations committees. She’s the oldest of five children in a family from Finnskogen, has a master’s degree in jurisprudence in addition to her law degree and worked for the large Elden law firm in Oslo before being elected as a Member of Parliament from Hedmark. She’s also taken part in some reality shows on both TV2 and Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK), and is known for setting off on challenging outdoor treks, either on skis or on foot.

She’s acutely aware that she’s Norway’s youngest justice minister ever, but refuses to let that be an issue.

“My age is written down on paper, and I can’t do much about it,” she told newspaper Aftenposten just after assuming her new office. “I will do this job and carry out my duties by being who I am.”

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund