Justice Minister Emilie Enger Mehl addressed Parliament on Wednesday, in an effort to stress that the Norwegian government is taking last year’s attack on Oslo Pride celebrations very seriously. She was later criticized, though, after failing to formally apologize for how police and intelligence officers under her command didn’t take warnings of the attack seriously enough.
A government commission last week pointed to mistakes made by both the Oslo police and the state police intelligence agency PST. They didn’t cooperate well enough with one another during the run-up to Oslo Pride, nor did they pick up on alleged communication between the man who randomly shot at Pride celebrants and Arfan Bhatti, a well-known Norwegian-Islamic terror suspect now facing extradition from Pakistan. Bhatti, who has a long record of convictions, had made threats of his own against Pride celebrations but no one at PST checked his social media accounts despite tips to do so from Norway’s military intelligence agency E-tjenesten. Bhatti has since been charged with contributing to the terror in Oslo last year but he’s been residing in Pakistan and resisting extradition home to face the charges in a Norwegian court.
The assailant believed to have been prodded along by Bhatti, Zania Matapour, had also come to PST’s attention but PST didn’t share its concerns about him with Oslo police, who are responsible for following up on people suspected of having been radicalized. After Matapour started shooting last June 25, it was also ordinary passers-by who managed to tackle him and hold him down until police arrived. Matapour has been in police custody ever since, but refuses to say a word about his attack.
Worst of all, the government commission investigating the police response to the his mass shooting determined that Matapour’s attack (which killed two men, wounded nine, injured 25 others and terrorized many more) could have been avoided. That prompted an apology from PST chief Beate Gangås, who, along with Oslo Police Chief Benedicte Bjørnland, has met with Mehl, who in turn claims she still has confidence in them both.
“They are responding to (the commission’s report) and take it with the greatest seriousness,” Mehl told newspaper Dagsavisen shortly after the report was released. She noted that the investigation into the attacks is still underway and that all involved “have a lot to learn.” Mehl added that “this is the time to find solutions” and that she personally has “an enormous responsibility.”
In her address to Parliament, Mehl called the mass shooting “an attack on Norwegian values.” She claimed the state has now “formed a ring around the gay community, and that ring won’t let hatred and threats get through.”
They contine to do so, though, with many LGBT activists reporting an increase in harassment and threats that also have been lodged against schools flying the rainbow flag and others coming home to find their Pride flags burned. Mehl seemed to try rallying the forces in Parliament on Wednesday, stating that “an attack on some of us is an attack on all of us.” She noted that Norway “has risen from terrorist attacks before (referring to the mass shooting carried out by a right-wing extremist in 2011) “and we shall rise up again. We shall not let extremist attitudes and hate win by dividing us.”
She called findings in the commission’s report both “serious and important” and promised that the justice ministry, which is responsible for the police in Norway, will “correct what went wrong” on June 25 last year. She has also promised to present a follow-up plan by the end of this month and a status report on it by August 15. The government has also boosted PST’s budget resouces by NOK 43 million.
Not everyone was convinced, with some worrying that the commission’s report will end up being shelved like many others. Grunde Almeland, a Member of Parliament for the Liberal Party, had trouble fighting back tears when making his own address to colleagues, saying that he and many others in the gay community now feel “that’s it’s possible it could have been avoided that we who already feel more vulnerable and less accepted than the rest of the population also now have lost a feeling of being able to be who we are, love who we love and express that in public.” The attack during last year’s Pride celebration “has changed something in us,” he said. “There is a fear now that wasn’t there before. We shouldn’t have to feel that it’s risky to hold our partner’s hand, or give him a kiss on the cheek. But that’s how many feel now.”
An apology from Mehl “would have meant a lot,” Almeland said, “as an acknowledgment at the highest levels of what the gay community has gone through.”
Other opposition politicians also demanded more details about measures being taken to correct mistakes made within the police and PST. “The manner in which she (Mehl) follows this up now will be critical for whether we have confidence in her,” MP Sveinung Stensland, justice policy spokesperson for the Conservatives, told state broadcaster NRK.