Sigrún Davíðsdóttir's Icelog

Kreppa: Selective reflexions on justice

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(Part I)

By guest contributor Michael Schulz. A social scientist who has worked for 30 years as a humanitarian manager in development, natural disasters and conflict on missions for the Red Cross in Africa, Asia, the Middle East, Russia and Trans-Caucasus and was i.a. based in Ramallah for two years. The last 5 years Michael was a diplomat with a Red Cross delegation in New York, accredited to the UN. – His Icelandic connection is through his partner who gives Michael an ‘Icelandicness’ and the authority to speak of Iceland though seen through his European eyes. Michael takes a keen interest in all aspects of the ‘Kreppa’ (Icelandic for ‘crisis’) in a philosophical, historical, political, socio-economic and cultural context.

Rambling in Iceland these days, physically or virtually, it seems the island is out of space and time, that it is all about speed. Not least this Icelog’s entries are testimony to daily Kreppa news, news breaking at ever shorter intervals. For observers or social commentators it is at times not easy to keep abreast.

The Office of the Special Prosecutor (OSP) has in earnest started to reach out for suspects, those deemed most instrumental in the undoing of Iceland’s financial sector and, subsequently, the entire economy. Individuals are kept in custody while investigations continue, arrest warrants have been issued for others. Court decisions are appealed. Appeals against temporary detention have been turned down by the Supreme Court. Suspects are released from custody but banned from leaving Iceland. Some returned voluntarily to Iceland for interrogation, others are sought after by Interpol while resisting extradition from abroad or have gone into hiding. Elsewhere, voluminous bills of indictment have been brought before courts. And, as is reported convincingly, more of the same is to come. Calls are on for more white-collar-crime prison cells.

Thus the suspects, so to speak, are on the run. This acceleration of actions had been longed for by the public and it came with somewhat a sigh of relief. Not least the recently published Black Report by the Special Investigation Commission (SIC) had delivered the contextual understanding of the deeply intertwined larger issues and details and who the actors were. It has not been the SIC’s mandate to deliver, as if it were, (legalistic) indictments or verdicts. These are matters of the OSP, public prosecutors, lawyers and courts.

As things stand today the SIC and OSP have exercised professional standards to the highest degree. Thus far it appears that irrespective of elite allegiances no actors or facts have been spared and the OSP, very laudably, is exposing the higher echelons of the banking sector not merely the lower ranks or dogs body. In following this path both special organs are making an important, albeit yet small, contribution towards the public’s belief in and the rehabilitation of credibility of public service institutions.

The Kaupthing wind-up Committee takes steps to salvage retroactively some of the loot. And, after long last, it seems even the tax authorities seem to realise that where fabulous wealth had been generated, irrespective of fraudulent means, revenues to the treasury might have been due.

Not to forget, after a new government has taken power in the UK and once by mid June elections are over in The Netherlands we are likely to watch another sequel of the Icesave saga. To be sure, a group of international banks is making legal claims on Landsbanki assets intended to cover roughly 90% of Icesave debts. If those claims succeed, only 25% might be covered ripping open another hole in the government’s vaults. At the same time, perhaps no coincidence, EFTA (the European Free Trade Association) reiterated that Iceland is legally bound to cover the minimum deposit guarantee to the tune of Euro 20000 per Dutch or British account holder.

Lets allow a short breath before events will rush us on and ponder a few questions that might have risen along the way:

The SIC and OSP are special organs. They have been purposefully placed outside the established judicial systems, in parallel or as an independent extension. One might therefore ask: what was the purpose? Was it not (also) a lack of trust and confidence in the established system? A lack of trust especially in those actors who built and governed the system? A lack that springs from the full knowledge of the partisan political patronage that governed the system and compromised and corrupted its independence?

The authorities had no real choice. It was at no point a realistic option to task the established system with the investigation and/or persecution. At the time the public was alert, up in arms (cooking pots and pans) and fully aware of the legal system’s deficiencies.

The repercussions from the onset of Kreppa were reverberating internationally and international scrutiny demanded – if not expressis verbis – transparency and independence of the process.

The authorities could not but meet mounting expectations and, to some surprise, went farther still and recruited internationally respected legal counsel (Eva Joly) also adding much needed extra legal expertise.

Adherence to those demands was, of course, implicit also an admission of systemic dysfunctions in the establishment.

If those system deficits were true would it not be legitimate to wonder how the traditional, established system can now be expected to manage independently and lawfully the impending onslaught of court cases, complex and with multiple international, political and legalistic, implications exposing powerful and well connected representatives of the local elite?

The OSP is scaling up, increasing its staff from 30 to 90, giving an indication that the case load will be quite massive. Reportedly it is not an easy task to find that many qualified persons in a small society of ca. 300.000. And, where to find the personnel to process the legal cases through courts, judges, assistants, prosecutors and defense lawyers, qualified and experienced to steer through a maze of fiercely fought arguments?

Yes, in a most recent appeal case the Supreme Court upheld a judge’s decision for the continued detention of two suspects under investigation. But was that simply a case in practice or a ruling to be subjected to critical scrutiny along political fault lines? Have not past appointments to courts raised eyebrows as selection criteria for judges other than qualification and merit prevailed?

Perhaps it is raising a question in hindsight as impending court cases seem headed for a course through the established system. But as a matter of principle one could wonder whether or not special courts, somewhat in analogy to the succeeding special organs SIC and OSP, seemingly (so far at least) uncompromised and independent, could do justice best to all parties concerned, including the public at large?

In fact, the question had been raised in the past albeit without much of a tangible conclusion. Some argue against, citing the lasting undermining effects on the old system. Precisely for that reason others argue in favour as change was the order of times.

Beyond the numbers of staff, etc.: What if the independence and confidentiality of the legal system doesn’t hold? What if justice will not be done and cases are perpetuated endlessly on technical grounds, appealed time and again?

Not by any measure an easy question to answer. But law, legislature and the judiciary system, including prosecutors and lawyers, are a matter quintessential to the fabric and functioning of any society including Iceland. Perhaps questions should be answered prior to action?

Follow me on Twitter for running updates.

Written by Sigrún Davídsdóttir

May 30th, 2010 at 10:45 pm

Posted in Iceland

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