Sigrún Davíðsdóttir's Icelog

Archive for June, 2014

Reykjavík County Court hands out severe prison sentences to four bankers

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“I’m just doing it for you guys,” Birkir Kristinsson was caught on tape saying to one of his fellow bankers at Glitnir. Kristinsson, the brother of Magnús Kristinsson – owner of fishing industries in the Vestman islands and a big borrower in the Icelandic banks – has been sentenced to five years in prison together with three Glitnir colleague two of whom also got the same prison sentence. The fourth was sentenced to four years in prison. Kristinsson has appealed and so will the three others most likely do.

This case is not one of the big ones involving major investors or bank managers and the numbers are not as high as in some of the other cases, most noticeably the al Thani case. It was however an important judgement because there are other similar cases snarling their way through courts.

Three Glitnir employees – Elmar Svavarsson, Jóhannes Baldursson and Magnús Arnar Arngrímsson (also accused in the Aurum case, acquitted in the Reykjavík District Court; case appealed to Supreme Court) – were indicted for loans to a fourth Glitnir employee, Birkir Kristinsson.

The loans, totaling ISK3.6bn, €23m, were issued between December 2007 and July 2008 to a company owned by Kristinsson, used to buy shares in Glitnir, thereby effectively creating a misleading share price. In addition, the three employees ignored the bank’s rules on lending. Later, the three made sure Glitnir i.a. bought back own shares at double the market price to insulate Kristinsson’s company from losses. Kristinsson was indicted for participating in the scheme.

Svavarsson and Baldursson, as well as Kristinsson were sentenced to five years in prison and Arngrímsson to four years. They were sentenced for market manipulation and breach of fiduciary duty. The four bankers are, with the exception of Birkir Kristinsson, not household names in Iceland. However, this is yet another banking-collapse case from the Office of the Special Prosecutor. Since there are other similar cases this verdict is indicative but none of these cases is over until ruled on by the Supreme Court.

The verdict, from June 22, is here, in Icelandic.

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Written by Sigrún Davídsdóttir

June 27th, 2014 at 1:19 pm

Posted in Iceland

Djúpivogur and the fight for the livelihood in small communities all over the world

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Earlier this year, Djúpivogur – a fishing village on the East coast about as far from Reykjavík as possible – suffered the same fate as some other fishing villages in Iceland: the fishing quota that sustained the village was moved to a village close to Reykjavík. But instead of suffering in silence the people of Djúpivogur have made a video that resonates the struggle of small communities around the globe in a changing world. 

The Icelandic fisheries policy, built on transferable quotas that follow the vessels, has secured that fishing is a thriving business in Iceland and  at the same time it has helped secure sustainable fishing. Or that is the official story. This apparently successful fishery policy has however been less successful in securing livelihood for small fishing villages along the Icelandic coastline: as fishing industries get bigger and more concentrated some villages have lost quotas or, in some cases, the quota has sailed away as fishing vessels are harboured in new places.

End of March, this happened in Djúpivogur, with just under 500 inhabitants. The fishing quota, which had been processed in the freezing plant, would now be landed and processed in Grindavík, meaning that around 50 people would lose their jobs, a heavy blow for this small village and the whole economy in this part of Iceland. The owners of the freezing plant, who planned to operate only in Grindavík, offered people help to move to Grindavík, where they could get work.

Some of those hit by the changes accepted being moved to Grindavík. But others thought of a different reaction: a video (brilliantly made by Arctic Projects) in Icelandic was made to make it clear to people what was going on. The video went viral in Iceland, became a news topic showing a different aspect of the planned changes in Djúpavogur. This had already made news at the time it happened but as often with such news, it only got attention for a day or so.

Following the video and the attention it caused the owners of the fishing industry decided to postpone the move for a year – and Djúpivogur suddenly got plenty of attention, also from politicians who have so far mostly ignored this unfortunate side-effect of the Icelandic fisheries policy: the fisheries thrive as a business but small villages live and die at the whim of these businesses. It’s not an easy situation to resolve but the people of Djúpivogur have given faces and voice to what happens when the quota sails away. Djúpivogur has been a thriving place, with start-ups and other creative businesses attracting young people back home after education and work experience elsewhere. It now demonstrates the fishery dilemma in a nut shell: it’s better for business to have transferable quotas but it’s the death of communities when the whole quota in that village is moved elsewhere.

As the introduction to the video says:

The purpose of this video, made on behalf of the Djúpivogur local council, is to alert people and politicians to the plight of Djúpivogur. The community has now fallen victim to the flaws of the Icelandic fisheries management system when it comes to small communities. Since 1984, the Icelandic fisheries management system has been based on individual transferable quotas that are allocated to individual vessels. If the vessel’s home harbor changes, the fishing quota goes with it. Although the stated aim of the fisheries Act is to “promote employment and settlement throughout Iceland”, its implementation, supported by politicians, is actually a serious threat to small communities around the country. The people of Djúpivogur demand of the government that it guarantee the community a fair share of the fish stocks belonging
to the Icelandic people.

The people of Djúpivogur were widely heard in Iceland. Here is the English version, which introduces this problem to the wider world where, though for other reasons than in Iceland, many small communities fight for their lives. It is difficult not to be touched by the emotional thrust of this striking little video story.

Take five minutes to watch this video and contemplate this Icelandic story from Djúpivogur, a small community that feels it has plenty to offer its inhabitants if only the transferable quotas were allocated not only according to the needs of the fishing industry but also in tune with the needs of those who live in the fishing villages. The video gives an insight into life in Iceland, the certain harshness and unpredictability – and the resilient wish to develop further the good life at Djúpivogur – a striking parallel to life in so many other parts of the world.

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Written by Sigrún Davídsdóttir

June 26th, 2014 at 10:04 pm

Posted in Iceland

A mini tourist-guide to Reykjavík and surroundings

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I have often been asked for Icelandic travel tips. Finally, here is a mini-guide to some of my very favourite places in Reykjavík and what to do and see. Yes, there is much more to see and do but these are just some of my un-missables if you spend a few days in Reykjavík. Sorry, only one hotel tip because I simply have no insight into that part of visiting Reykjavík. Airbnb is widely available in Reykjavík.

Food:

Whereas fast food is expensive in Iceland fine dining comes at a very reasonable price – and is quite often rather good. Here are some that don’t disappoint (but don’t expect really good wine; also the service is normally very friendly but often not very professional).

Grillið (The Grill) at Hotel Saga is one of the oldest fine-dining restaurants in Reykjavík and probably the best right now. It’s on the top floor of a luxury hotel with an absolutely fantastic view over Reykjavík and the surroundings. It’s now run by Siggi Helgason (he’s to the left on the website photo), a dedicated young chef who has seen the world. I have to declare interest, family relations. Siggi is very interested in making the most out of all things Icelandic, also very Nordic style cuisine but he had worked in England, Ireland and elsewhere and picked up good things on his trips. A seriously professional cook with a good kitchen team.

Dill used to be in the Nordic House, by the University of Iceland campus, built by the famous Finnish architect Alvar Aalto and worth the trip just for that. However, the restaurant has now moved downtown, haven’t been to the new place yet but heard the same rave reviews as earlier. The Dill cuisine is the Icelandic version of the Nordic cuisine and the staff has always been enthusiastic about their food. – For the café at the Nordic House, Aalto Bistro, see below.

Other good places, all in the centre

Lækjarbrekka  has been around for decades and has had a revival recently – lovely ambience and great food.

The restaurant at Hotel Marina, right on the harbour as the name indicates, is very lively during happy hour and in the evening, also good for lunch.

Kopar is a restaurant by the harbor – always seems packed and in the evening heaving with partying Icelanders, more though in winter than in summer. Try to get one of the tables upstairs by the windows with a truly fantastic view over the harbour. Crab and seafood is their specialty.

Hotel Holt is a luxury hotel from the sixties, gone downhill a bit but it’s full of Icelandic art from early 20th century – go to see Kjarval there in a private setting and the bar is just great for seeing it. This is a place for fine dining, I’ve had some great food there but also pretty unmemorable food. Dark wood, dated but in an interesting way.

And just off the centre, out on the Reykjavík beach is Nauthóll, see below.

Matur og drykkur (Food and drink) is out on Grandi, by the harbour, a neighbourhood rapidly turning into a favourite destination for various food places. They specialise in classic Icelandic (i.e. often Danish-inspired) but done in a modern way with a twist. I had dinner there the other night, absolutely fantastic with interesting and innovative take on Icelandic classics, great vibe and lovely staff.

Now in July I did a day-trip to the Vestman-islands in order to have dinner at Slippurinn the other restaurant owned by Gísli Matthías Auðunsson, who also owns Matur og drykkur – the food and the whole experience of going there, even if it’s not a sunny day like they come once in a decade, is superb. Gísli is from the islands, loves making use of all there is to have there and some more and both the food, the service and the environment has the warmth and loveliness stemming from doing things with a big heart and soul.

Two newish restaurants that I have recently visited: Public House on Laugarvegur, Icelandic-Asian fusion and Von mathús og bar, in an artists’ community in a lovely setting in Hafnarfjörður – two very exciting new-comers on the Icelandic food scene.

I’m often asked where to go for typical Icelandic food. Well, facing Hallgrímskirkja is Café Loki. It’s been around for a long time, had dinner there in July for the first time and yes, it’s really like being invited to dinner with an old and generous, warm-hearted Icelandic aunt (sorry, men didn’t much cook some decades ago). I have to admit that old-fashioned Icelandic food isn’t my favourite, didn’t really grow up with it but this is absolutely the ideal place to get this type of homey Icelandic cooking. I had a plate of herring and it was very very good. Their “rúgbrauðsís”, ice cream with rye bread is, no exaggeration, one of the best ice creams I’ve ever had – ice cream lovers, don’t miss it!

Fast food – but not really

Don’t be tempted to have a bite at fast food joints – except of course Bæjarins bestu, a by now world-famous hot dog stand in the centre – because fast food is unreasonably expensive in Iceland and normally not very good. Rather, if you are hungry go to a supermarket, buy smoked salmon and “seytt rúgbrauð” – dark, slightly sweet rye bread – and enjoy with butter and Icelandic cucumber. Icelandic fish roes – salmon, trout and lump fish is a delicacy not to miss. Look out for “skyr,” slightly sour dairy product, similar to German “Quark,” delicious on its own or with milk and muscovado/dark sugar; look for the frozen Icelandic berries, fantastic with skyr; “flatbrauð,” “flatbread,” is unleavened bread, good with smoked salmon or smoked lamb, “hangikjöt.” “Harðfiskur,” literally “hardfish,” is dried fish, tastes a bit like prawn crackers but the fish taste is stronger without being overpowering.

My all-time favourite food shop is Melabúðin, Hagamel 39, in the Western part of Reykjavík. A family-run shop with all sorts of delicious Icelandic food, also from some small producers. It’s open until 8pm, pretty crowded around 6pm but that is part of the charm. I love going there because I invariably run into people I know and they have the best of everything. If you want an all Icelandic immersion buy their cooked and warm “svið” – lamb head – or “slátur” i.e. “lifrarpylsa” liver pudding and “blöðmör” blood pudding as well as all the typical Icelandic delicacies and the more adventures ones where inventive producers make new products from typical produce. Now, drink that with some of the new Icelandic beers and turn an everyday meal into a veritable feast. Perhaps a moveable one for those travelling around or staying in tents.

Frú Lauga Bændamarkaður, Mrs Lauga Farmers’ market, is a shop at Laugalækur and Óðinsgata. Kjöt og fiskur (Meat and fish) is in the centre, Bergstaðastræti. There are several good fishmongers in Reykjavík. My favourite is Fiskbúðin Vegamót, Nesvegi – fresh fish, frozen seafood, “seytt brauð” and various things that are found at any good Icelandic fishmonger.

Streetfood is now a growing part of the Icelandic food scene. Look for the wagons along the harbour. On Saturdays and Sundays there is a food market in the centre, in Fógetagarðurinn, mostly streetfood.

Sægreifinn, the Sea Baron, is in a barack by the harbour, where the cooks is an old fisherman whose speciality is lobster soup. He also offers minky whale (but some restaurants have a sign saying “meat us, don’t eat us” meaning they don’t serve whale meat, for animal welfare reasons; difficult to hunt whales without making them suffer) and other fish on skewers. – An original place, best for lunch. I normally don’t go there, find it slightly too touristy, it is much loved by many foreigners but I have just been there and it is cheap, chic and really good. Had the soup and skewers again, with Icelandic beer, sat outside and it was quite enjoyable.

Icelanders love ice cream and it is not just a summer thing – in Iceland you eat ice cream all year around, also out in the cold. There are now many ice cream shops in Reykjavík. One of the older ones, more or less with a constant queue, the default choice, is Ísbúð Vesturbæjar, Hagamelur 67. Valdís out at Grandi is a popular one, as the queues there witness. I have recently been to the ice cream shop at Lauglækur 8, love their old-fashioned milk ice cream, dipped in chocolate and rolled in grated coconut. They also do an unusual variety of hot dogs. Everyone in Reykjavík has their favourite ice cream shop; in my opinion they are all good – not like the best in Italy etc but good in the sense that there is great variety, also in ice cream-based deserts and it is a good place for watching Icelanders being Icelanders. Don’t miss it – a very Icelandic guilty pleasure.

Cafés

The best coffee is at Kaffismiðjan – on a little side street off Skólavörðustígur, close to the landmark Hallgrímskirkja (on the hill). A great hang-out place with good cakes etc and open wifi and my absolute favourite when I’m in Reykjavík.

Mokka is a café that hasn’t changed since it opened in the sixties. Also a gallery with art of varying interest but always great atmosphere. Their hot chocolate is famous.

There are three Súfistinn cafés but my favourite is in the Mál og menning bookshop on Laugavegur 18.

Because I always go to Kaffismiðjan I haven’t yet tried out Kaffifélagið on Skólavörðurstígur who many say is really the best café. I can’t say because yes, have yet to try it and intend to do so in summer. – I have tried it now, the coffee is good but it is more to drop by rather than hang around since it is small.

A great place to visit in the evening is Kex Hostel, an incredibly cool and quirky place, close to the harbour, where you meet a great selection of young  Icelanders (and the slightly older ones, when I’m there). In the evening there is often live music. It’s open from breakfast until late, serves food all day. In the office building opposite the Office of the Special Prosecutor has its abode so that building is full of secrets from the banking bubble times in the years up to October 2008.

The Kex group now also runs an avant garde pizzeria on Hverfisgata 12, the (so far) No Name Place. Modern take on pizzas, great selection of Icelandic craft beers and a good bar (reasonably or more reasonably priced than many other bars in Reykjavík) with the unmistakably good vibes of Kex. It is not for those who insist on classic pizzas or want to compose their own but invariably good for those who are prepared to follow the cooks’ lead.

Aalto Bistro is at the Nordic House. Not going for the hyperbole but their shell fish soup on a good day, based on Icelandic crab stock, is worth the trip… even all the way to Iceland.

When Kaffi Vest opened in October 2014; who would have thought it possible to run a café in the Vesturbærinn, a suburb but yes, that is now possible. It has great decor, good vibe, open from morning to late. The food is a bit erratic, might be just teething problems, but the vibe always good. And it is just opposite Vesturbæjarlaugin, the swimming pool and Melabúðin, the best deli for food shopping.

A propos hotels: I would stay at Kex if I were traveling to Reykjavík as a tourist: well located, quirky and accommodation offers for all budgets.

Another new hotel, based on a similar concept as Kex, is Oddsson (in case you are familiar with Icelandic politics: no, nothing to do with the politician of that name). An incredibly cool place to hang-out in, good if you want to do some work. There is also a bar and a bistro there, haven’t yet tried it but I’ve heard good things about it. The building is one of the more distinctive buildings in Reykjavík, originally from the 1940s, with a fabulous view on the gulf, Snæfellsnesjökull and glorious sunsets when mother nature offers them. A walking distance from Grandi, the harbour and the centre.

The Icelandic beer deserves a mention by now. There is a veritable surge in craft beers and I have not had anything but just great beer from this thriving flora of small breweries. It is now one of the things I look forward to enjoy when I visit but happily Einstök beer is now available in UK, i.a. at Oddbins and at least in my local Oddbins I am told it sells really well.

Shopping

Before I knew other places intimately I assumed that modern gold and silver jewelry was something found everywhere but that is of course not at all the case. However, in Iceland there is plenty of choice when it comes to contemporary jewelry. I doubt there is another city in the world with as great a choice of  it as is found in Reykjavík. There is historic reason for it: in the decades after the war not much could be imported to Iceland, Icelanders were flush with money and some of it was spent on in the silver- and goldsmith workshops, set up under Danish influence. The best thing to buy in Iceland is silver jewelry, both in terms of price and design. I doubt there is another city in the world with as great a choice of contemporary jewelry as is found in Reykjavík.

Skólavörðustígur and Laugavegur are filled with little shops of Icelandic design, plenty of jewelry shops around there. Also shops with contemporary clothing and Icelandic design.

There is so much that comes and goes in Iceland but Kirsuberjatréð has been around for decades now and sells a great selection of Icelandic design, both jewellery (fabulous!), other accessorise and things for the home.

Cintamani and 66North are Icelandic sport labels, shops in Bankastræti. Cintamani has really cute children’s clothes. The fishmongers at Borough market wear 66North!

A quirky place is the antiquariat on Klapparstígur 25-27, off Laugavegur – huge for a second hand book shop, stuffed with books, mostly in Icelandic but also many in other languages, and some weird things.

One of the best music shops in the world. I know, Icelanders are prone to hyperbole but this isn’t saying too much, 12 tónar at Skólavörðustígur 15, of course with all kinds of Icelandic music and other good music.

Art and museums

Contemporary Icelandic art is thriving. The most interesting galleries are i8 in Tryggvagata, right by Hotel Marina and the Sea Baron. Hverfisgallerí at Hverfisgata 4 is a recent addition to the Icelandic gallery scene. The old rebel and wild-at-heart Kling and Bang has been without a home for a while now but its new space will open in autumn 2016.

You find the two main public museums/galleries in the city centre, the National Gallery,  a lovely café there, good for lunch. The same at Reykjavík Art Museum. In the East part of town there is Kjarvalsstaðir, dedicated to works by the greatest Icelandic artist, Kjarval. Seen in connection to art during his time (1885-1972) his work is truly original, inspired by Iceland in a very special way.

For weirdness and total experience there is the Einar Jónsson museum, by Hallgrímskirkja. The museum was designed by the artist (1874-1954) himself who is spiritually connected to the British arts and craft and symbolism. His bedroom is normally not open but ask if you can possibly see it.

Sigurjón Ólafsson was a sculptor who studied in Denmark before moving to Iceland with his Danish wife. They lived in Laugarnes, close to the container harbour of Sundahöfn. There is now a beautiful little museum there and a café. There are also regular concerts at the museum.

There are often art exhibition at Hallgrímskirkja, keep an eye on their programme.

To do and see

Harpa is the concert hall on the harbour. Half-built when the Icelandic banks collapsed in Oct. 2008 it was then finished after a hefty debate if such extravagance was permissible in times of crisis. The glass “case” encasing it is by the Icelandic artist Ólafur Elíasson who did the sun installation at Tate Modern.

The best thing about life in Iceland are the swimming pools – plenty of them around in Reykjavík and around the whole country – with varyingly hot tubs and normally also with a sauna/steam bath. My favourite is on the outskirts of Reykjavík, Seltjarnarnesslaug.  A good time to go is in the morning or after a long day; open until 8 or 9pm, depending on the season. I like Seltjarnarnesslaug because the water is salty, instead of chlorine.

Those who like a properly long pool go to Laugardalslaug. Swimming in Iceland is a website with all you need to know about this topic. Even if you don’t particularly like swimming don’t miss out on the experience of swimming the Icelandic way: outdoors, no matter the weather, the essential Icelandic experience.

All pools have outside dressing rooms (yes, closed-off, separate for male and female) and that is for me part of the true experience of swimming in Iceland. Again, try it, best in an Icelandic company.

Nauthólsvík is the Reykjavík beach. You don’t need to be a heroic viking, there is a hot pool there but if you want to dip your toe into the Atlantic that’s the place, especially if you stay close to where the hot water flows into the sea there. The facilities are modern and I love the vibe there, as well as the cold water. Not to be missed. Right by there is a nice restaurant, Nauthóll, good both for lunch and dinner – modern architecture, glorious view.

There is of course the famous Blue lagoon – I used to think it was totally worth it, also for the architecture and being in the middle of a lava field but it’s just so crowded and ridiculously expensive that I’m no longer sure, I would rather go to any of the pools. You can take a bus out there, ca. 45 min. drive (it’s close to Keflavík Airport).

To see a bit of Iceland in a day, do the Golden Circle tour, covering the glorious Þingvallavatn, a huge lake in a sunken lava field, the famous Geysir (which has given its name to all hot springs in the English language) and the great waterfall, Gullfoss (the “gold waterfall”).

There is now another spa/lagoon type of pool at Laugavatn, ca. 60 km east of Reykjavík, passing Þingvallavatn. Haven’t tried it yet but it looks great on photos.

No need to mention whale watching, plenty of offers but check out this company that runs tours from the old harbour, close to Hotel Marina and Sea Baron.

In Mosfellsbær, a Reykjavík suburb, there is a small waterfall called Álafoss. In early last century this was the centre of the Icelandic wool industry and the label was called Álafoss. Then it went bankrupt but the old factory and surrounding buildings now house artistis, a tourist shop (what Icelanders call sea puffin shops because that seems to be The Icelandic Souvenir for some reason), a café, a knife workshop and other activities, a great place to visit. In the knife workshop, look out for faces glued to the floor: five politicians who, according the the owners, gave away the banks when they were privatised in 1998 to 2003. These faces are familiar to most Icelanders above a certain age and bear witness to the time before the boom that led to the collapse of the three main Icelandic banks in October 2008.

If you have a car one of the most fantastic things is to drive out of town – it does not really matter where to because everywhere there is something to see and it is marvellously easy to find a place where no man-made things are in sight and you can feel around in the world!

The Northern lights season has passed for the time being. The weather is changeable, you will come to understand the word if stay for more than just a few days. Here there is all you need to know about the weather in Iceland, right from the Icelandic meteorological institute, Veðurstofan. But for me, the weather in Iceland is always just great because no matter what, it is always an experience.

Further away

In July I stayed at Barðaströnd, where the Westfjords start. I stayed at Þverá, part of Nordic Lodges, wholly recommended – they have three other cottages in other parts of Iceland – and aided by fabulous weather and glorious sunsets the time spent there was fantastic. The Westfjords are definitely not crowded. I visited Bíldudalur and the Icelandic Sea Monster MuseumPatreksfjörður, various pools, check Swimming in Iceland, SelárdalurRauðisandurLátrabjarg, the nearby museum and last but not least Ísafjörður.

En route I visited Stykkishólmur with Roni Horn’s installation Library of Water and the Volcano Musem. Another lovely destination.

Drive carefully in case you are driving, the roads are not what global urban dwellers are used to but have a good trip – or, as we say in Icelandic, “góða ferð!”

*Last updated August 10, 2016.

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Written by Sigrún Davídsdóttir

June 11th, 2014 at 11:20 pm

Posted in Iceland

Acquittals and close connections

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Acquittals in major cases brought by the Office of the Special Prosecutor have made headlines in Iceland and elsewhere. In addition, it has now surfaced that an expert, called in to be a lay judge in the Aurum case is the brother of Ólafur Ólafsson, one of the four indicted in the al Thani case.  Jón Ásgeir Jóhannesson, at the time Glitnir’s largest shareholder, was indicted in the Aurum case, together with Glitnir’s ex-CEO Lárus Welding and two Glitnir employees. Both were acquitted.

Jóhannesson has however earlier been found guilty in two cases but in both cases the prison sentence was suspended. In February last year, he was sentenced in a tax fraud case to 12 months in prison, suspended, and fined for ISK62m, €400.000. In June 2008 Jóhannesson was sentenced, as part of the long running Baugur case, to three months in prison, also suspended. Following both sentences Jóhannesson is prevented from sitting on boards of companies for some years.

In a nutshell, the Aurum case concerns Glitnir staff indicted for breach of fiduciary duty, i.e. for lending money without necessary collaterals and guarantees. Indeed Glitnir lost the ISK6bn, €40m, that the bank lent in this saga. Jón Ásgeir Jóhannesson, who profited from the loan by getting €6,5m, of the loan (because Fons, the company that got the loan and couldn’t repay it, apparently owed Jóhannesson this sum of money) was charged for aiding in the alleged illegal activities. Numerous emails brought up during the oral hearings showed his direct involvement and severe pressure on finalizing the loan, which he profited from.

Ólafur Ólafsson was indicted on similar grounds in the al Thani case last December. Reykjavík County Court found him guilty and he was sentenced to 3 1/2 years in prison. That case has been appealed to the Supreme Court. In Iceland no one goes to prison until the Supreme Court has ruled in an appealed case.

In addition to two District Court judges Sverrir Ólafsson professor at Reykjavik University was called to be an expert judge in the Aurum case. Over the weekend, Icelandic media pointed out that Ólafsson is the brother of Ólafur Ólafsson. It is still unclear if this will have consequences. (Foreigners sometimes think that everyone must know everyone in Iceland – well, not quite and Ólafsson is a common last name).

Judge Guðjón Marteinsson and Stefán Ólafsson acquitted the four. The third judge, Arngrímur Ísberg, was in minority: in his opinion all four were guilty and should have been sentenced to prison. Theoretically, if a lay judge had sided with Ísberg the outcome would have been different.

From the course taken by the Reykjavík District Court in the al Thani case, where the four indicted were sentenced to 3-5 1/2 years, it is difficult to understand the reasoning of the two judges who chose to acquit in the Aurum case. The al Thani case has been appealed and a Supreme Court decision is expected in autumn or early winter. If the Supreme Court comes to a different conclusion it would not be the first time that an acquittal in a banking-related case is turned around in the Supreme Court.

The other case ruled on last week – called the Ímon case after one of the companies involved – is part of a market manipulation case brought against Landsbanki managers. Here the loan saga is similar to the al Thani case: Landsbanki lent funds to limited liability companies with little or no collaterals, here in order to fund the buying of shares in Landsbanki only days before the bank collapsed. These deals were nothing less than the largest share purchases in Landsbanki that year – these companies were each buying around 2% of Landsbanki shares. Sigurjón Árnason and Sigríður Elín Sigfússdóttir were acquitted but a lower level employee, Steinþór Gunnarsson was sentenced to nine months in prison, of which six are suspended.

So far, all the OSP cases have been appealed and that will most likely be the route with these two recent decisions.

Apart from legalities it is clear that if banking as practiced in the above mentioned cases were applied as a general rule the bank in question would be out of business fairly soon. And who wants to be a shareholder in a bank where funds are leant out in such a way that if something goes wrong the bank can’t recover the funds?

*The verdict in the Aurum case is here and the Landsbanki verdict here (both in Icelandic). 

 

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Written by Sigrún Davídsdóttir

June 9th, 2014 at 11:09 am

Posted in Iceland

Acquittal in Reykjavík District Court in Aurum case

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Jón Ásgeir Jóhannesson, Glitnir ex-CEO Lárus Welding and two other Glitnir employees have all been acquitted this morning in the Reykjavík District Court in the Aurum Case. The Prosecutor will no doubt appeal, sending the case to the Supreme Court.

It remains to be seen what the outcome will be but in the Exeter case, another financial fraud bank-related case, the Reykjavík District Court acquitted but the Supreme Court sentenced to 4 1/2 year prison term.

The verdict is not yet out on the Court website. Will read it later on.

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Written by Sigrún Davídsdóttir

June 5th, 2014 at 11:08 am

Posted in Iceland

The results of the local elections – and the anti-“others” discourse in Iceland

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The Progressive Party staged a remarkable turn-around in Reykjavík, apparently because the top candidate spoke out against a planned mosque. Anti-immigrant discourse has so far not been part of the Icelandic political debate. The question is if this is now changing or if this topic will die out as quickly as flared up

After rush towards new parties in elections 2009 and 2010 the four old parties – or the “Four-Party” as Icelanders call them – got a solid outcome in the elections Saturday May 31. The Independence Party is still far from its glory of earlier decades, which ended in 2009, but the party leadership can sigh in relief that the party did make gains. The Progressive Party did not do as well but achieved nothing less than a miracle in Reykjavík: after opinion polls showing 0 seat, as has been the case since 2006 it won two seats, apparently because it questioned a planned mosque in Reykjavík.

The local elections only has an indirect effect on the government but the two coalition parties – the Progressives and the Independent Party can both interpret the outcome positively in spite of dismal polls lately: the Progressives will no doubt feel they are good at gauging the popular mood; the Independence Party might feel reassured that its bleakest hour are now firmly behind.

The social democrats gained votes and can feel mildly reassured of its outcome. It did not do quite as well in Reykjavík as opinion polls had indicated but it is the largest Reykjavík party. Its top candidate Dagur B. Eggertsson, who has de facto steered the Reykjavík Council under mayor Jón Gnarr, is likely to form a majority with Bright Future. That party ran for parliament last year, picking up some of its candidates from Jón Gnarr’s now defunct Best Party, though only a fraction of the Best Party popularity in Reykjavík. Left Green lost around the country but won a seat in Reykjavík and might very well be part of an Eggertsson led council.

The unexpected election topic in Reykjavík: a mosque

The issue of a plot of Reykjavík land for a mosque only flared up in the last few days, apparently almost by accident. The Progressives’ leading lady in Reykjavík Sveinbjörg B. Sveinbjörnsdóttir – who took the first seat a few weeks ago when the number one resigned in face of dismal opining polls – started airing her doubt about the planned mosque. She denies she took this up on her own accord but only responded to questions when meeting with voters.

Sveinbjörnsdóttir got a heavy beating from some in her own party for airing what some felt were intolerant views: the number five on the list disengaged from the party, Gunnar Bragi Sveinsson minister of foreign affairs spoke strongly against her views. Interestingly, prime minister Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson kept quiet about the issue and only spoken of his unease over the strong reaction Sveinbjörnsdóttir elicited from those who did not agree with her.

According to Icelandic law, faith communities can get a land free to build a house of worship. Needless to say, this law stems from the time when the Icelandic Lutheran community – almost entirely under the state church – was the only faith organisation building houses of worship. The Reykjavík council had given a plot of land to a Muslim community. The rumbling among the voters has been why this community should get land for free, if it should be in some other place, if the land was unreasonably big, that mosques were known to harbour terrorism and extremism and so forth.

The fact that Sveinbjörnsdóttir echoed the concern of many voters seems to have created a surge for the Progressives only over the last few days. Also it seems to have made a difference that the Progressives are in favour of keeping the Reykjavík airport whereas other parties want it moved in order to free up building land. Consequently, the party now has two members on the Reykjavík council, after having had none since 2006 – the most surprising outcome of the local elections.

Racism and intolerant views has had no following in Icelandic politics – so far

So far, racism and intolerant views towards foreigners or new foreign faith communities has had little public following in Iceland. And not entirely for lack of trying. One new party, which ran in the parliamentary elections last year preached some far right views, both on markets and foreigners but to no avail: this party got nowhere.

Earlier, the Progressives had dallied with anti-foreign view, but the same: there was no response from voters and by election time last year the party had abandoned these views. Anti-foreigners far right views simply did not seem to attract any interest. Until the issue of the mosque rose to the surface.

Immigrants in Iceland

Number of foreigners in Iceland has jumped up over the last decade. Immigrants came first to work in the fishing industry, later in the service industry. Apart from the fishing industry, hospitals and restaurants run on an immigrant workforce.

At the beginning of 2013 9.1% of the inhabitants in Iceland were immigrants. By far the largest foreign community in Iceland is the Polish community, ca. 9.400, in a country of 326.000 inhabitants, meaning the 3% of the inhabitants are Polish/of Polish origin. The highest ratio of immigrants vs Icelanders is in Western Iceland but two out of every three immigrants live in Reykjavík. Unemployment among the Polish community is 15% compared to 4% for born and bred Icelanders. The Poles have much revived the Catholic community in Iceland.

There are two Muslim communities in Iceland with a total of 645 members. An application for a plot of land to build a mosque was put forward already in 2000 and has been sloshing around in the system ever since. In the meantime, the Russian Orthodox community and the pagan community (Ásatrú, based on what is thought to have been the faith of the Vikings) got plots of land in 2007 and a Thai Temple was granted land in 2009.

The application for a mosque has surfaced in the Icelandic debate now and then but never with any particular fervour – until now.

If this indicates a surge of right wing anti-immigrant politics in Iceland remains to be seen. Judged from how these policies have fared so far it seems unlikely – but it is also possible, as often happens with these issues, that debate now might have granted these views a certain “legitimacy,” which others may feel they can now exploit: being anti-Muslim might pave the way for a further “them and us” discourse in Icelandic politics though there is nothing to indicate it except this flare around the mosque not yet built.

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Written by Sigrún Davídsdóttir

June 1st, 2014 at 5:02 pm

Posted in Iceland