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Sunday, May 26, 2024

Sami demonstrators cleared in court

All of the 18 Sami demonstrators who’d refused to pay fines for ignoring police orders to end their occupation of a government ministry last year were acquitted by the Oslo County Court on Tuesday. One of their lawyers called it “a victory for democracy and the rule of law.”

Several of the Sami demonstrators who occupied the Oil & Energy Ministry last year were forcibly removed and issues fines that they’d refused to pay. Now they’ve all been cleared by the Oslo County Court, which confirmed their right to demonstrate peacefully. PHOTO: Natur og ungdom

The activists were protesting the government’s failure to remove wind turbines from Sami grazing land, after Norway’s Supreme Court had ruled the turbines’ licensing invalid. They occupied the Oil & Energy Ministry and blocked entrances to several other government ministries in a wave of demonstrations throughout 2023.

It was their occupation of the oil minstry that resulted in fines for their failure to follow police orders to leave the premises after four days. When they also refused to pay the fines they were called into court. Several were recently acquitted but not for all, and some also faced six-day jail terms.

On Tuesday there were all acquitted on the grounds they’d had the right to demonstrate peacefully. The court ruled that the order to end their demonstration, the police decision to physically carry demonstrators out of the ministry and then fine them illegally restrained their rights to demonstrate under the Norwegian constitution.

The ruling came as a huge relief and a pleasant surprise for the Sami activists. “We had prepared ourselves for the worst, so when everyone is freed (of the charges against them) it feels very good,” Ella Marie Hætta Isaksen, one of the leaders of the Sami demonstrators who’s also a well-known and prize-winning singer, told state broadcaster NRK.

The Norwegian Supreme Court had declared back in 2021 that the wind turbines violated the Samis’ human rights, but the government was slow to respond to the verdict. The demonstrations began after 500 days of waiting for the state to respect its own high court’s decision, and were widely viewed as forcing the government to finally act on the Supreme Court decision, and apologize to the Sami whose human rights were challenged.

The government minister in charge, Terje Aasland, was called in to testify at the demonstrators’ trial and countered that the government’s decision to finally apologize was unrelated to the demonstrations. “We’d started the work (to resolve the issue) immediately after the Supreme Court decision was handed down,” Aasland testified.

He was challenged by Judge Heger, who noted that it had been “a long time since the Supreme Court decision. Why did you spend 500 days planning an apology?” Aasland resonded simply that “we found it natural to apologize on March 2 (2023). That was when the reindeer herders from Fosen came to Oslo, and it was natural to do it in a meeting with them.”

Sami demonstrators ended their wave of protests last year only after finally being invited to the Royal Palace in Oslo for a meeting with King Harald V and Crown Prince Haakon. The demonstrators included (from left) Elle Nystad, leader of the national Sami organization NSR Youth, Elle Rávdná Näkkäläjärvi, Ella Marie Hætta Isaksen, Mihkkal Hætta, Petra Laiti, leader of Suoma Sámi Nuorat, Nella-Stina Wilks Fjällgren and Ingke Jåma. PHOTO: NewsinEnglish.no/Morten Møst

Olaf Halvorsen Rønning, one of the lawyers for the Sami demonstrators, said they were glad the court “was so clear about the meaning of our freedom of expression and freedom to demonstrate, and how important that was to hold state authorities responsible for human rights violations. In that sense, the verdict is a victory for democrace and the rule of law.”

The president of the Sami Parliament was also relieved, and gratified. “I’m glad they were not punished for their defense of the rule of law,” said Silje Karine Muotka. “When the government lacked respect for a Supreme Court decision for more than 500 days, it had to expect demonstrations.”

Hætta Isaksen said the decision warmed her heart, “especially when I think of my friends who did such an important job. It feels very fair when the judges agree that we shouldn’t have been punished.”

NewsinEnglish.no/Nina Berglund

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