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Wednesday, April 24, 2024

Sami demonstrators called into court

They’ve gone along with recent settlements between Sami reindeer herders and wind power producers on mountain plateaus in Fosen, but Sami demonstrators are still fighting for the human rights of their indigenous people in Norway. On Monday the battle was over fines issued after they’d occupied government offices last year, and their refusal to pay them as a matter of principle.

Young Sami demonstrators who won a meeting with King Harald at the Royal Palace last fall had to appear in court in Oslo on Monday. They’re credited with helping halt the state’s human rights abuses of Sami reindeer herders, but now they face prison terms for refusing to pay fines issued when they didn’t follow police orders to end occupation of government ministries. From left: Elle Rávdná Näkkäläjärvi, Ella Marie Hætta Isaksen, Mihkkal Hætta, Petra Laiti and Nella-Stina Wilks Fjällgren. PHOTO: NewsinEnglish.no/Morten Møst

“I think it’s absurd that those of us who defended our human rights are being punished, while those who broke them are not,” Mihkkal Hætta told news bureau NTB. One of the most high-profile demonstrators, musician Ella Marie Hætta Isaksen, agreed: “We’re being fined because we have protected human rights in Norway.”

She testified in court on Monday that their lengthy demonstrations in Oslo last year, which ended only after a meeting with a sympathetic King Harald V, were “highly necessary” and finally forced some progress in a conflict that raged for a full decade. At issue was how the state allowed construction of wind turbines on Sami grazing land at Fosen in the Trøndelag region of central Norway. The turbines disturb the reindeer, and Norway’s Supreme Court ruled in October 2021 that the the state’s licensing for them was thus invalid. The high court also declared that the turbines violated Sami human rights.

The Norwegian government allowed them to keep operating though, and was ultimately accused of ignoring the high court ruling as the conflict dragged on. After 500 days of inaction, the mostly young Sami demonstrators launched their series of demonstrations that included a four-day occupation of the Oil & Energy Ministry, blocked entrances at several other ministries, marches and loud demonstrations outside Parliament, and even a lie-down inside Parliament. The government apologized for the human rights violations but the conflict dragged on.

The demonstrations finally led to more serious negotiations between Sami reindeer herders in both southern and northern Fosen and turbine operators Fosen Wind in the southern portion of the huge wind power plant and Roan Wind in the north. They were conducted with the help of state mediator Mats Ruland and have since resulted in a combination of economic compensation to the reindeer herders, establishment of a state culture fund for Norway’s southern Sami group and establishment of new grazing areas for the reindeer herders.

The Energy Ministry reported last week that the culture fund will receive a one-time grant of NOK 5 million in the revised state budget for 2024. Newspaper Aftenposten reported that Roan Wind will also pay the Nord-Fosen herders NOK 7 million a year until 2043, when Roan’s license for the turbines runs out.

The Sami demonstrators’ occupation of the Oil & Energy Ministry at the time lasted for four days. Many who refused to leave were either forcibly carried out, fined or both, and now face jail terms. PHOTO: Natur og ungdom

The young Sami demonstrators and their supporters from the environmental organization Natur og Ungdom, meanwhile, are widely credited with forcing the government and wind power producers to finally act and head into the mediation. The 18 summoned to court for failing to pay fines between NOK 3,000-5,000 (USD 300-500, for refusing to obey police orders to leave the areas they were occupying last year) remain angry. They face up to three months in prison if they don’t pay, but they continue to claim that no settlements would have been reached if they hadn’t carried out their demonstrations.

“This is so sad and that’s why I’m so angry,” Ella Marie Hætta Isaksen testified on Monday, “because when I look at everyone on the defendants’ bench, none of them should have been indicted, while those who violated human rights for many years go free.” Several of the demonstrators ended up being physically carried away by police last year, but Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) has reported that the police recommended against fining them.

The state fined them anyway and called them into court when they refused to pay. State prosecutor Stian Hermansen tried to separate the demonstrations in Oslo from the human rights violations, claiming in court that the case involves simply individuals who did not follow police orders. That’s what’s being punished, he claimed, not the demonstrations themselves.

NRK reported that Judge Kim Heger, meanwhile, apologized to some of the defendants who wanted to testify in their Sami language, not Norwegian. A Sami-Norwegian interpreter had been called in, but court officials had failed to provide the headphones needed for simultaneous translation to Norwegian. Heger thanked defendant Elle Nystad, among others, for agreeing to testify in Norwegian after all. Mihkkal Hætta testifed in Sami, with the interpreter allowed to translate sentence by sentence.

The court case attracted many observers on Monday, including Sami singer Mari Boine and others who support the demonstrators. The demonstrators’ defense attorney Olav Halvorsen Rønning claimed his clients view the court proceedings as “a case of ‘to be or not to be’ for Sami culture. Without reindeer herding, Sami culture and the Sami language can disappear.” He also noted that last year’s demonstrations would not have occurred if the government had quickly followed up on the Supreme Court decision and stopped violating the Samis’ human rights.

“It will be a new human rights violation if these Sami demonstrators are now punished for their demonstrations,” Rønning claimed. The court’s decision is pending.

NewsinEnglish.no/Nina Berglund

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