Crime and Punishment (BJ)

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benedikt-dlThe trial of our former Prime Minister, Geir Haarde, is a low point in the period of shame the country has endured since the dark days of October 2008. Some foreigners think this is a criminal trial, and I don’t blame them. We usually don’t charge anybody unless we think he is guilty of a crime. The trial against Geir Haarde is different. It is the first time in the history of the republic that any statesman has been put on trial for his work as a politician. It is a political trial.
 
A number of journalists have called me and asked what the charges are. Did Geir conspire with businessmen to steal money from the banks? Did he embezzle state funds? Did he do some businessmen special favors? Will the trial uncover some devious conspiracy against the Icelandic people?
 
The people who call are genuinely interested and excited in the beginning. But when they find out that the charges are only of negligence and not appropriately informing his ministers about the gravity of the situation, some ask: Is he being charged of not holding a meeting?
 
In a nutshell, the majority of Althingi, Iceland’s Parliament, voted to charge a political opponent for not preventing the world economic crisis.
 
Some members of Althingi said that the trial would give Geir Haarde a chance to prove his innocence. In the old days women got the chance to prove they were not witches. Here in Iceland they were put in sacks and thrown in a lake. If the sack floated, the women were obviously witches and were promptly killed. If it sank, they were innocent. If the body was found, it would be buried in a graveyard. Such was Icelandic justice back then, and for the majority of Althingi it is still so.
 
Geir Haarde was not even particularly close to the businessmen and bankers who recklessly used the banks for their own interests. He did not fly on their private planes like President Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson and his wife Dorrit Moussaieff. He did not accept the invitation of the Russian oligark Roman Abramovitz, to fly on a private plane to Siberia and then to a Chelsea game like President Ólafur Ragnar. He did not give speeches, talking about the entrepreneurs of Iceland, how special they were and conclude: You ain’t seen nothing yet! like … you guessed it. Our beloved President.
 
Not that the President broke the law (I assume he paid taxes on the frills he received from the Icelandic businessmen and Mr. Abramovitz). He just cozied up to the businessmen who brought Iceland to the brink of bankruptcy. Geir Haarde on the other hand did just the opposite. He fought hard to try to prevent the looming crisis. Unfortunately he was in a situation were almost anything he did would have brought on the very catastrophe he wanted to avert.
 
Had he spoken out, panic would surely have broken out with a run on the banks. Passing an law requiring the banks to downsize would have had the same effect. The only thing that could have been done was to pass a law, saying that the banks could never be governed by one group or individuals. Such a law should have been passed in 2002. But at that time we had a different Prime Minister, Davíd Oddsson. Far from passing such a law Davíd sold the two state banks to political friends, one to friends from the Independence Party, one to friends from the Progressive Party, his coalition partner.
 
Geir Haarde later apologized on behalf of the Independence party for the bungled privatization. Davíd Oddsson did not.
 
When Geir Haarde took over as chairman of the Independence Party I wrote an article saying that I thought nobody disliked him. He is an unusually likable man. People may disagree on whether he is a good politician. But that was not a crime until Geir Haarde was put on trial.
 
I have no doubt that Geir Haarde will be acquitted. It seems inconceivable that the majority of the special court would concur with the hatred of political opponents. But the trial will always be part of Icelandic history, to the shame of all who voted to charge an innocent man.
 
Benedikt Jóhannesson bj@icelandreview.com

Views expressed here are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Iceland Review.