For Norway’s Most Brutal and Lawless Police Unit, Pre-Trial Detention Is an End Goal

by Reidar Visser

In most democratic countries, pre-trial detention is recognised as a fundamental breach of the presumption of innocence and therefore something that should be avoided as much as possible.

Given its generally good human rights record, Norway has got a surprisingly large amount of bad press for its overuse of pre-trial detention. What has received less attention, though, is that the organised crime unit of the Oslo police deliberately resorts to pre-trial detention in many cases where prosecution is not necessarily even the end goal.  For example, for years, the organised crime unit has practised mass arrests of entire families when only one member of the family is suspected of specific criminal wrongdoing. Officers of the organised crime unit have publicly said the aim of this is to terrify and to “show that association with these people is a risk sport”. This tendency is in line with a broader pattern of systematic violations of the presumption of innocence by the organised crime unit.

This week, the Norwegian newspaper Dagbladet published new comments by officers within the organised crime unit that once more highlighted how they see themselves as being far above the judicial system and its limitations. In the context of an upsurge of ethnic gang-related violence in Oslo, an officer called Rune Swahn revealed that one of the priorities of the unit right now is to produce as many criminal cases against gang members as possible, “preferably of the kind that leads to pre-trial detentions so that these people are taken out of circulation”. Of course, pre-trial detentions are by their very nature highly arbitrary. People may come into custody over the weekend and when they finally are allowed to appear before a court the next week, the threshold for keeping people in continued (pre-trial) detention is very low.

Swahn goes on to detail the undercover work of his subunit – known as Spesielle Operasjoner, which may sound like “special operations” but which in Norwegian translates as “peculiar operations”.  That’s a fitting name. Swahn brags about how the police know where the gang members are at any time, who their girlfriends are, where they go on holiday, etc. He goes on to say, “we can also use unconventional methods”, without providing any specifics. The unconventional methods of the organised crime unit are however well known: They consist of stalking, harassment and outright threats against people who are disliked by the police but who cannot be prosecuted for a lack of judicial basis.

The latest information from Dagbladet only serves to underline the image of the organised crime unit of the Oslo police as an affront to the concept of rule of law in Norway. A cancerous tumour within the Norwegian law enforcement system, it needs to be excised with solid margin before the police state tendencies  it represents will gain ground and become difficult to reverse.