Thirteen people, mostly ex-bankers, have now been sent to prison in cases connected to the banking collapse brought by the Office of Special Prosecutor. Four of these prisoners keep giving rise to media coverage in Iceland: earlier in November it turned out that they had applied for a riding course, organised by the Agricultural University of Iceland. In the end, the director of the Prison Service refused to accept that this expensive course fulfilled the set criteria for prisoners’ rehabilitation. It also ensued that these prisoners have allegedly made use of PR firms.
For the time being, three former top managers of Kaupthing – Hreiðar Már Sigurðsson, Magnús Guðmundsson and Sigurður Einarsson – and the bank’s second largest shareholder Ólafur Ólafsson are in prison, serving sentences from four to six years. The prison that houses them, Kvíabryggja, is on the Northern side of Snæfellsnes, close to the tip of the peninsula that can be seen from Reykjavík on a clear day.
These four prisoners, sentenced in the so-called al Thani case, are not the first sentenced in relation to the banking collapse but they are the first to continuously making media headlines. In 2003 a member of Alþingi was sentenced to prison for embezzlement from public funds. Also staying at Kvíabryggja he procured new mattresses for the prison.
Shortly after the four were imprisoned there were news that also they wanted to pay for some improvements at Kvíabryggja but this is no longer legal: prisoners can’t use their funds things at Kvíabryggja at their own will.
An exclusive course for wealthy prisoners
In early November the Icelandic media covered a story regarding a riding course these four prisoners allegedly wanted to take part in. The Agricultural University offers riding courses, intended for A level students and was willing to offer it to the four prisoners at Kvíabryggja. The course was to run on weekends this winter, starting early November, in a riding hall at a farm next to but not belonging to the prison.
The cost was €3.800 per participant. The course only included the teaching, which meant the prisoners had to provide a horse, saddle and other things needed, apparently not a problem. Ólafsson who for years has owned a grand summerhouse close by the prison is known in Icelandic equestrian circles as the owner of some of the most expensive and outstanding horses in Iceland.
It seems that when the director of the Prison Service Páll Winkler heard about this he inquired if the course was offered to all prisoners. Apparently that was not the case. Though being part of the curriculum offered by the Agricultural University in this case it was allegedly tailor-made for these four prisoners, at a price only very few prisoners will be able to afford. Consequently, Winkler interfered and the course was called off.
Prisoners, a riding course and human rights
Following Winkler’s comments to the media that the riding course did not fit rules on courses acceptable for prisoners the wife of Ólafsson, Ingibjörg Kristjánsdóttir, wrote an article in one of the Icelandic papers, Fréttablaðið, accusing Winkler of inappropriate comments and breaching the prisoners’ human rights. Interestingly, the paper is owned by Ingibjörg Pálmadóttir, the wife of Jón Ásgeir Jóhannesson; Jóhannesson is charged by the OSP in a pending case.
Kristjánsdóttir claims that Winkler’s comment breached the prisoners’ human rights, made at the cost of people he should be protecting, “prisoners who have few to speak for them in a society of hate and revengefulness, prisoners that Páll knows are not allowed to speak to the media. Thus the prisoners are defenceless against the attack by the director of the Prison Service.”
Winkler answered, claiming that talking about “breach of human rights” showed Kristjánsdóttir’s “lack of understanding and utter lack of respect for people who have really suffered breach of human rights from public institutions, either in this country or abroad.” Rules had been followed and he had no further comments to this case.
Prisoners with PR people
In relation to the riding course Winkler said to Rúv that a very small group of prisoners has access to millions of króna and even makes use of public relation firms to contact him and the prison service. “PR firms have contacted me, asking me to say a, b or c or not to say a, b or c. I found this utterly preposterous and was left speechless.”
Winkler also says that wealthy prisoners have tried to buy services that are not offered to prisoners in general. “This is a delicate balance because if this is something offered to all prisoners I am of course only glad when the situation can be improved.” However, services for only a select group of prisoners is unacceptable.
As an example Winkler mentions a new association, “Friends of Kvíabryggja” set up to improve life at Kvíabryggja, offering funds for improvements but this is, according to Winkler, unacceptable. He has i.a. refused requests for a yoga course and more tv channels. “If you are powerful and want to improve the situation for prisoners you turn to Alþingi and do it through the Budget.”
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