When Police Stalking Goes Awry: An Example of a Multi-National Harassment Operation
by Reidar Visser
[This article is also available in Norwegian/norsk tekst her: https://policestalking.wordpress.com/2012/07/15/politistalking-og-fotfolging-pa-internasjonal-skala-et-eksempel-fra-norge/]
One police stalking case of Norwegian origin that deserves mention for its peculiarity more than for its representativeness relates to an academic who has been persecuted for his research project since February 2011. The case shows not only how police stalking can subvert so many judicial principles that the very idea of rule of law is under threat; it also demonstrates how stalking methods may lead the police very far away from common police tasks, to the point where their obsession with performing stalking activities detracts from their performance and takes attention away from real criminal threats, including terrorism-related ones. The case shows how the Norwegian police first invent laws of their own, then go on to apply them unevenly, and finally are using them to persecute dissident academics extra-judicially. It also involves extremes as far as duration and intensity are concerned: 24/7 in more than one and a half year, with extensive use of sleep deprivation against an individual with a known case of inflammatory bowel disease.
The stalking victim in this case was an academic who lived in Oslo. He was an historian and most of his published work related to the Middle East. For health reasons he could not travel as much to the region as he wanted, so he developed a sociological project on fashion history as an aside to his Middle East research. The main focus was the tug of war between designers and customers through the medium of street fashion, and in particular how certain basic clothes and brands often trump designer fashion, creating popular (and often regional or national) prototypes of stereotypical street fashion “looks” that typically last much longer than the annual fashion seasons – sometimes surviving for more than 5 years. He collected images for the project by periodically taking pictures on his mobile phone of people on the street who fitted the criteria for prototype inclusion, mostly in Oslo. Other than the prototype criteria, there was no attempt to establish the identity of the people on the images, and no person was photographed on more than a single occasion. The images were collected for a future book project where it was essential to have images of “ordinary people” instead of fashion bloggers since those who blog about fashion are often unrepresentative in that they listen more to designers than average people. Having used photographs as an historian throughout his career, he had previously collected a far greater number of “street photography” images from a Middle Eastern port city in the 1920s from antiquariat sources.
Police making up the rules: Mobile photography, the law, and human rights
The legal framework governing photography in public areas is pretty much the same in Norway as in the rest of the Western world – photography is considered permitted in publicly accessible areas unless expressly forbidden. The Norwegian penal code has only one specific mention of photography and that relates to the commercial exploitation of child pornography. Each major city also has separate police regulations, but again the relevant ones for Oslo – which cover every conceivable problem under the sun ranging from skateboarding to loud song performances – has no mention of photography. When photography is forbidden in Norway, there will typically be a sign saying so, most often in the vicinity of security installations or military areas. A proposal to make certain types of privacy-invading photography illegal (such as taking photographs by peeping inside a private home) was shelved by Norwegian parliamentarians in the 1970s.
Reflecting this state of affairs, the Norwegian code on police methods, which goes into considerable details regarding things like video recordings from hidden devices, does not say anything about photography at all, again indicating that the police can take photographs as much as they want simply because everybody can. This interpretation was specifically confirmed by a group of Norwegian legal experts who wrote a critical treatise on police methods in light of European standards on privacy in 2004 (NOU 6/2004). Senior officials of the Norwegian police mostly accept these principles even in cases that more conservative observers would consider as privacy infractions, as seen for example in comments by police lawyer Tor Henning Knudsen in 2003 relating to so-called “candid” streetshots from Oslo (the lawfulness of the photography itself was not disputed and the act of publication considered lawful because no identifiable faces were shown, Dagbladet, 11 June 2003), and again by Trondheim police in relation to a case involving someone photographing naked children using special equipment in July 2010 (specficially describing the act of photography as lawful but indicating concerns regarding publication, Adresseavisen, 31 July 2010). There is even a ruling from Oslo district court as recently as early 2009 which specifically confirmed the right of citizens to make photographs with their mobile phones in public areas (the police had tried to fine a lawyer who photographed them, TV2, 6 February 2009).
In line with this relatively liberal approach, conviction of photographers by Norwegian courts are few and far between, mostly limited to very obvious infractions of privacy in the most intimate ways imaginable. A ruling from Bergen from 2006 on indecent behaviour involved a large number of so-called “up-skirt” photographs as well as a photo of a semi-naked teenage girl in a dressing room (summary of the case in BA, 30 November 2011). Another ruling from Hamar in 2009 involved beach photographies including topless images that were subsequently uploaded to an explicitly pornographic website. Finally, in an extraordinary case from Sunndal involving a gynecologist surreptitiously photographing a large number of women during consultations, a fine of 25,000 kroner (USD 4,000) was imposed in 2010. The case seemed to involve grotesque privacy violations in a number of ways: The extreme asymmetry of power, speaking both physically (the fully clad doctor versus the naked women in stirrups) and psychologically (the unchallengeable authority that many associate with a doctor versus the difficult position of the women who may have been worried and were seeking advice for a health problem that made them uneasy in the first place); the exceptional invasion of privacy (the photographs covered mainly the genitalia of the women); the absence of anonymity (the doctor named files according to the personal names of the patients); a very high number of this kind of intimate photographs (2,000 plus). The slight reaction by the judiciary in terms of a heavy fine seems to verge on the over-permissive. Nonetheless, it is noteworthy that it came after the national prosecutor had intervened (the case was first dismissed by the district prosecutor who considered the images non-pornographic). In other words, if the Norwegian judiciary had wanted to send a strong signal about mobile photography in the period it was involved with that case (2007-2011), it had a golden opportunity to do so – but eventually refrained from imposing a heavier punishment.
The Norwegian situation reflects European conditions and interpretations more broadly. In Denmark, photography is expressly prohibited only with reference to military sites and if attempts are made to take photographs of people who are beyond areas of public access (penal code 264a). In 2006, the Swedish supreme court went as far as dismissing an attempted case against a person who had secretly videotaped naked adults in private gardens (including in intimate situations), arguing that these persons could not have been the victim of an offense as long as they did not know about the filming and only found out afterwards (Sydsvenskan, 15 November 2006). Clearly this decision may come across as overly liberal in light of the private-home red line indicated by the European court of human rights, but it does show just how liberal European judiciaries can be when it comes to photography. Swedish police reiterated this line in 2009 when they declared lawful the photography of thousands of Swedes on the beach (including naked ones) by way of concealed equipment and subsequent uploads of the images to a semi-pornographic website (Expressen, Helsingborg Dagblad, 19 july 2009).
In the Netherlands, one can sometimes find signs indicating explicit prohibition of photography, for example in public toilets. Only cases involving massive privacy violations, such as filming seriously ill people inside a hospital and then publishing the material on TV without their consent, have led to court cases. The European human rights court generally confirmed these interpretations in a ruling related to Austria (Friedl vs Austria), where photography by police of demonstrations was acknowledged as rightful and where it was maintained that privacy rights in the European convention on human rights primarily concerned the right of the individual to “fully be himself or herself” in private areas like a home (in Swedish, cases involving privacy violations are literally called “violation of freedom of the home” or hemfridsbrott.) The UK and the United States go even further in seeing the right to photograph almost anything in public as part of freedom of expression. The London Metropolitan Police explicitly says it cannot stop any photographic activity (the discussion includes mobile phones) except if it relates to an act of terrorism.
In the United States, restrictions on photography mainly relate to grey-zone areas that are technically speaking public, but where a degree of privacy is expected – above all restrooms and locker rooms, with an emphasis on outlawing photography of the private parts of the body. Similar legislation has been passed in Australia and New Zealand (also referred to as anti-voyeurism legislation). New Zealand stands out as a country whose politicians have deliberated these issues at length before arriving at the conclusion that nudity constitutes the red line that can be meaningfully enforced. In a unique case, New Zealand in 2005 prosecuted a person for non-nude photography, in a case involving a large number of high school girls photographed on their way to school (The Queen vs Rowe, 2005). The verdict of indecent behaviour, which went all the way to the supreme court, emphasised the elaborately concealed method for making the photographies (the photographer was hidden behind curtains in a caravan) as well as the absence of a legitimate purpose. However, legal experts in New Zealand today consider this case as an outlier, not least since the same person was acquitted in a second, separate case by the high court later in 2005 for photographing a number of young women in a public library, which was seen as “strange but not indecent” (New Zealand Herald, 17 December 2005).
This kind of photographic liberalism has in many countries been corroborated by the photographic activities of the state itself. Consider TV programmes of the Candid Camera kind. Norway had a state-sponsored incarnation called Smil til det skjulte kamera, in which thousands of Norwegians were filmed (and often broadcast), sometimes in unpleasant situations orchestrated by the production teams.
In short, in Norway as well as in Europe and the Western world more broadly, photography is accepted in ways it is not in many Islamic countries, like Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Sudan. In Qatar, tourist information leaflets specifically say visitors must ask permission before photographing anyone, especially women. In Sudan you need a government permit for taking any photos. Norway is not Sudan.
The one area of European (and Western) human rights jurisprudence that could conceivably be of relevance in this case relates to stalking. However, the existing laws on stalking in several countries invariably confirm that a single act of photography of a particular stranger is not stalking. Almost every law on stalking requires regularity and duration in harassment that targets a specific individual, and certainly that whatever unwanted attention is involved takes place more than once (examples include Italy, Belgium and England & Wales). In general, the modern judicial interpretation of stalking does not emphasise the original, medieval meaning of the term (“to move stealthily”). Whereas this concept can be form in colloquial expressions relating to photography across Europe (snikfotografering in Norwegian or smygfotografering in Swedish); it is simply not reflected by any legal category apart from those relating to either repeated harassment or privacy invasion in the sense of the private home or the naked body.
In fact, it seems that sometimes, Norwegian police are actually prepared to accept a lot more than other countries in terms of people watching and photographing each other. In a remarkable case, it was revealed in 2011 that a Norwegian security company had not only photographed visitors and people who came to the US embassy in Oslo (the monitoring was done on behalf of the Americans), but also kept files in which people were identified and their political affiliations analysed. Despite this project going much further than the fashion history project of the stalking victim, Oslo police officially concluded that the eager embassy watchers were simply engaged in “observation” (rather than “surveillance”) and as such could do what they did because everybody can. No police action against the group was seen as mandated (Aftenposten 10 December 2010; NRK 19 January 2011).
An extra-judicial, punitive police operation
Perhaps a key to understanding the differences in the Norwegian police response to the fashion history project and the embassy watchers is the realisation that the people who participated in the embassy area photography came from particular backgrounds: Some of them were former police. On the other hand, the fashion historian who was targeted had no such privileged links and although his work was significantly less invasive in terms of violating anyone’s privacy (no establishing of identity etc.) Oslo police decided to declare his activities a nuisance and to go after him, extra-judicially and informally with stalking methods. They did so without ever asking him a single question as to the reasons for his photography and they never once indicated that he should stop – meaning that in addition to administering a punishment for a perceived offense against which no Norwegian law existed, they also violated the Norwegian police law which establishes subsidiarity and gradualness as mandatory for any kind of repressive action by the police.
In fact, the only infraction of the Norwegian penal code involved in the case was the punitive action of the police, which should be punishable under article 117a on psychological torture – defined through attempts by a government official to inflict psychological pain on someone with a view to punish, threaten or force that individual. Prior to commencement of the punitive measures in February 2011, traditional undercover methods had been used for several months to establish the identity of the academic in question. It is believed a considerable number of “sting incidents” took place in which the police recruited people to serve as potential “motives” for the photographer, except that they could not arrest him since he had done nothing against the law. The operation then began on 12 February 2011. After never having had anything to do with the police in his whole life, the academic was stopped by a police patrol in broad daylight in Oslo and subjected to a search and ID check, supposedly related to a knife episode on the tram. The episode was a bogus incident staged by the police, but the academic at first did not understand it. However, in the following days he noticed that police cars began following him on his way to and from work (where he did most of his photography in broad daylight), and he noticed people who looked like undercover police tailing him into shops. He became suspicious of all the police activity and the stalking and decided to stop taking pictures since that was the sole activity he was engaged in that was even remotely out of the ordinary.
However, once the academic stopped taking pictures, the police intensified their stalking efforts. A brigade of 10-20 unmarked police cars, easily identifiable by their license plates, began following his every move and accompanied him each day as he went on foot to work. At night, the same cars would encircle his exposed flat, making excessive noise in the previously quiet street and using their horns all the time. Sometimes they were joined by marked police cars who would put their sirens on briefly as they passed his flat. When he went to bed, one of the cars would park right outside his window with its motor running for long periods, sometimes more than an hour, making it quite impossible for him to get an average of more than 4 hours of very interrupted sleep per day at most. At his workplace the police replicated the noise harassment by using unmarked police cars. As if to underline the connection to his photographic activities, some of the undercover officers began conspicuously photographing him on his way to and from work, often by taking flash photography in the dark when the photographic result in itself was unlikely to be of much value.
The most aggravating element of the harassment operation was the sleep deprivation. The academic suffered from multiple chronic diseases including ulcerative colitis. With massive dehydration from being waked up so often he developed additional injuries to his intestinal tract. After having endured the cruel operation for 4 weeks and having also made some experimental attempts to travel domestically within in Norway (including to Asker and to Bergen), he realised he was being followed everywhere and that the police stalking operation against him applied nationally. Given the repeated use of mobile photography on the part of some of the undercover agents, he was by now convinced that the photographs were the reason for the harassment and that he was the victim of an extra-judicial punishment process – incidentally the kind of judicial problem he had previously tackled in detail in his work on rule of law issues in the Middle East. Even if there had been a desire to prosecute him on some kind of far-fetched basis, the prospects for a fair trial by now seemed irreparably damaged in light of 4 weeks of mistreatment and gross human violations by the Norwegian police.
Going extra-territorial: Norwegian cops instigating human rights violations abroad
Since the nature of his work was international, the academic decided to leave Norway instead of pursuing the uphill struggle of protesting the mistreatment. On 22 March 2011, he travelled from Bergen to Schiphol airport in the Netherlands and then continued to London in order to find a flat there. However, to his surprise, he discovered that he was being followed by Norwegian undercover agents. In London, the group of Norwegian police were able to instigate similar actions by the Metropolitan police that he had been subjected to in Norway, with noisy police cars and foot patrol agents tailing him everywhere at daytime and deliberately disturbing his sleep at night at the hotel where he was staying. Exhausted and desperate, he left for the United States on 25 March, but discovered that 3 identifiable Norwegian police officers came with him on flight CO 111. On arrival in Newark, the group was joined by more Norwegian police officers (whom he recognised from the harassment patrols in Oslo) who had landed concurrently with him en route from Norway, most likely on the SAS flight from Copenhagen or the direct Continental flight from Oslo. A substantial number of the police officers were identifiable members of the organised crime unit within the Oslo police, which specialises in undercover work including police stalking.
From late March to early May 2011, the academic stayed in the United States in the hope that the federal structure of that country would make it more complicated for Norwegian police to instigate and conduct illegal extra-judicial punishment of him across a number of administrative jurisdictions. However, this failed. Whereas the sleep deprivation in the United States was significantly less severe than in Norway, both Norwegian agents and US police would harass him throughout the day, including inside academic libraries at Princeton and Harvard. The stalking victim was able to identify a group of 10 to 15 Norwegian officers who arrived with him in Newark, with somewhat smaller numbers in Washington DC and Boston, and then another big group of maybe 10 officers in Seattle from 26 April to 3 May.
To his despair, the academic realised the Norwegian-led police operation was able to penetrate the most prestigious of US government institutions to continue the harassment. He had hoped the fact that he had previously been useful to the US government, including the CIA, might be of help. But to no avail. On 19 April 2011, the US police sent a person from the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency as a bogus participant at a CIA workshop in Virginia where the stalking victim gave a presentation on Mahdism. In one of the most surrealistic CIA versus FBI scenes ever, the NGIA person asked questions that almost seemed calculated to come across as weird and somewhat off-topic, thereby distracting a $50,000 CIA event for the sake of a Norwegian-led harassment operation. On 22 April, the academic lunched with State Department officials including an assistant under secretary of state at the National Press Club, only to find that the police staged excessive and prolonged flash photography exactly in the area where he was busy offering advice to the US government during a crucial period of transition in the Persian Gulf region. At a State Department briefing the same week, a police officer from the State Department security unit came and demonstratively sat next to him as he was discussing with members of the Bureau of Intelligence and Research in a public area.
Seeing the window of opportunities rapidly diminishing, the academic then travelled on to Qatar, where he had been invited for a conference on Middle Eastern affairs in early May. However, a group of perhaps 5 Norwegians plus some Americans, probably FBI, followed him there as well. Despite having been given an official invitation from the ruling family he was subjected to harassment by the emiri guard at the event he was attending and exposed to severe noise harassment at night during his hotel stay. Americans and hotel staff carried out most of the harassment; it was clear that the GCC countries did not have the same experience in using these police methods as European and North American countries have.
The stalking victim then travelled on to Jordan in order to make an approach to the CIA via the US embassy, but this did not work out. He suspected foul play as the supposed CIA station officer he met seemed to be acting out of character during their interview. Having now seen basic rule of law principles violated on three continents, the academic nonetheless decided to make a last attempt in the EU. But once more, Norwegian police followed after him – to Italy, France and the Netherlands. Increasingly, in some countries it now seemed police were cooperating with the general population in the stalking operation, apparently by circulating images of him so that he could be identified and subjected to the full range of harassment at their hands as in shopping centres and other public spaces.
The Dutch factor: From human rights violations to crimes against humanity
By June 2011, the academic decided he had travelled enough, not least since his stomach condition had worsened to a point where he needed medical treatment. Also, the behaviour of the Norwegian police seemed to send a signal that they would pursue him to any corner of the world, meaning there was little use in trying more countries anyway. He settled down in the Netherlands, thinking it would be easier to build a case against the police if he stayed in one place and made efforts to identify by name the principal offenders among the police and their collaborators in the local community. He also hoped that the international participation in the operation would vanish once the airmiles factor disappeared.
Whereas the Norwegians finally seemed to reduce their direct engagement in the operation in the autumn of 2011, the local police in the Netherlands kept harassing him. In some ways the harassment campaign took on an even more depraved form when it became localised in the Netherlands. Dutch police basically recruited the general population in the medium-sized coastal town of Noordwijk and, later, the small town of Maasdam (both in the Zuid Holland province) to stalk the man around the clock for around a half-year in each place. In the case of Maasdam, the penetration rate with respect to population participation was probably as high as above 50 per cent. Health workers and doctors – categories that are exempt from this kind of thing in many authoritarian states that openly practice torture – were enlisted to take part in the harassment in some of these areas. In Noordwijk, the intimidation campaign was focused on the prestigious Grand Hotel Huis ter Duin, where the victim stayed as a long-term guest from July 2011 until January 2012.
The way children and handicapped people have also been enrolled to take part in this stalking case can be described as a crime against humanity – because these participants in the operation are really victims as well. It involves the systematic use of state power to socialise hundreds of Dutch children and other legal minors into believing extra-judicial punishment and bullying is OK. To deliberately use handicapped and even psychologically handicapped people to communicate stigma and marginality will in turn reflect negatively on these already weak groups and serve to reiterate stereotypes. In many ways, alongside the stalking victim, the legal minors encouraged or even forced to participate in stalking operations by the police or their parents in this case are the collateral damage and perhaps the most vulnerable of the victims. These children will grow up with a mind set that is part medieval and part 1984 in the Orwellian sense.
By June 2012, the stalking campaign had assumed a character that took it close to physical torture, with extremely heavy sleep deprivation (in repeated cases no sleep at all over a 60 hours period). This kind of escalation is not untypical of the life cycle of a police stalking operation. The police has a naïve theory that the community-based stalking through the simulation of everyday activities can create sufficient pressure on the stalking victim to make him or her leave. They apparently consider this method legal, conveniently ignoring of course the fact that stalking is a crime in many countries. As the stalking victim resists and attempts to involve locals in “community policing” fail, the operation may grow increasingly violent and become more similar to a traditional torture situation. Often, when the police finally succeeds in pushing the stalking victim out, they have long ago abandoned their community policing ideals and are secretly using torture-like methods to cause extreme sleep deprivation, forcing the stalking victim to leave due to physical and not psychological pressures.
When police stalking detracts from honest police work
Even though the Norwegian involvement in this remarkable stalking operation is now less intensive than it was initially, the operation was Norwegian by design and it was Norwegian police who initiated and led the global operation. It is also the Norwegian government who must ultimately assume responsibility for instigating human right crimes in more than 9 different countries against a citizen who is not even Norwegian (the stalking victim has the nationality of an EU country even though he was born in Norway). The only thing they have actually achieved through their use of millions of Norwegian kroner of taxpayer money is to ruin the health and the Middle East research of the academic, much to the detriment of several NATO allies who are still using his Gulf analyses in their own work.
Whether there has been an Europol factor involved is unknown. But in any case, the extensive international cooperation here illustrates the degree to which international police diplomacy – basically cops who love to stay in fancy hotels in the name of “international police cooperation” instead of patrolling on the beat – can undermine the more fundamental interests of sovereign states as reflected in their foreign policy. It is also a disturbing testament to judicial standards in supposed rule-of-law democracies that the stalking victim in this case travelled between 9 different countries and yet the illegal operation transitioned almost seamlessly from country to country (with the exception of the Middle Eastern ones, where clearly these technologies were unknown and where more rudimentary substitutes were used instead). It is immaterial whether the case is perhaps somewhat unique in geographical extension and duration of time. The capability to do the operation was omnipresent, and the fact that 9 supposedly sovereign countries were prepared to promptly replicate an extra-judicial operation originating with the Oslo police shows the remarkable speed with which injustice can travel in the twenty-first century. It similarly highlights the potential side effects of ever more uncritical expansion of “international police cooperation”. In this case, altogether 9 countries decided to ignore their own constitutions and the European convention of human rights when faced with a request from a Norwegian police official to stalk the fashion historian.
In modern Western judicial philosophy, it is commonly taken for granted that a suspect in a crime has the right to 1) Receive information about what law s/he has violated; 2) Explain him- or herself; 3) Have the case settled by an independent court; 4) If found guilty of anything, be punished humanely through prison, labour or fines. These are basic privileges that we routinely bestow even upon people suspected of the most horrible crimes, including terrorism, murder and child abuse. But in this controversial photography case, all these four very fundamental boxes of justice have been left unchecked. Instead, acting as jury, judge and executioner at the same time, Norwegian police has done to this man the logical opposite of what he had done to the people he photographed. He never stalked anyone or even photographed anyone on more than a single occasion. Thus, if someone felt they were being photographed and found it bothersome, it lasted for a few seconds of their life only. That is the sort of risk exposure that is generally seen as acceptable in a modern liberal society. Conversely, the Norwegian police has ruined the life of the man by stalking him 24/7 for more than 500 days, with medically documented permanent physical injuries to his intestinal tract stemming from severe dehydration episodes with subsequent digestion problems.
Finally, it is also part of this story that the excessive use of undercover agents from the organised crime unit of the Oslo police between February and June 2011 took away resources precisely in the key period leading up to the 22 July 2011 terror attacks in Norway – when Norwegian police had tipoffs relating to Anders Behring Breivik, but failed to do anything about them. It is the big irony of this case that Norwegian police exploited anti-terror technology to target an academic working for the rule of law and against terror in the Middle East, while at the same time taking the eyes off the ball and ignoring signs about a terror plot that was underway. In late April 2011, when Anders Behring Breivik made the final preparations for his 22 July attack which killed 77 people in Oslo and on Utøya, dozens of Norwegian undercover police officers were busy harassing a controversial photographer in Seattle, some 7,300 kilometres away from Oslo – presumably “on the beat for a safer capital”, as their slogan says.
In sum, this case shows how police stalking not only violates the principles of rule of law, it also sometimes affects police units and their operations in ways that deflect attention from the real tasks before the police. Both dimensions emphasise how crime committed in the name of the rechtsstaat may well be the greatest threat to that state itself.