How the Norwegian Government Brought an End to My Iraq Research
by Reidar Visser
I sometimes wonder why it took me so long to write in the first person about police stalking.
I wanted to exhaust every other possibility first. To make sure that there was no other conceivable road back to the life I once lived. I had been happy as an historian based in Oslo in Norway, working on Iraq and its transition to democracy and the rule of law.
Back in early 2011, when the Oslo police began giving me unwanted attention due to my street photography, I reacted with shock and fear. At the time, my own jurisprudence regarding photography was unrefined and mainly based on induction and analogy: If a Japanese tourist could take mobile camera photos, then so could I. When a fleet of uniformed and unmarked police cars suddenly began chasing me around the streets of Oslo in February 2011 in a so-called police stalking operation (aka “conspicuous surveillance”), I panicked and got worried I might have overlooked some kind of newly introduced regulation specifically relating to the use of mobile cameras. The harassment, I suspected, could be intended as warm-up before questioning and prosecution.
But when the police persecution continued around the clock for several weeks – escalating to regular sleep disturbance as plainclothes police deliberately woke me up several times every night – I changed my interpretation. I concluded that the more they harassed me, the less they could prosecute me. I was also increasingly convinced that my photography, mostly snapshots taken in broad daylight on the way to and from work and intended for a future sociological project on street fashion, was perfectly legal. Since health issues limit my ability to travel to Iraq, I have always explored various asides as potential alternative research areas for the future.
My next idea was to offer the police some kind of satisfying “result”. In retrospect, this looks stupid and defensive, but back then it seemed to me that I was in a conflict with the police where prosecution was impossible but where they were bent on punishing me extra-judicially anyway. Instead of starting an uphill court struggle or accepting more harassment, I decided I would simply leave the country and continue to do my Iraq work from elsewhere. Norway is not exactly the centre of the universe with respect to Middle East studies. If the Oslo police thought my photography was a problem they could celebrate their little triumph, and that would be the end of the matter.
In late March 2011, I travelled to London with the intention of finding a flat. When Norwegian police came after me and managed to get police in London to replicate the 24/7 harassment protocol they had started in Oslo, I panicked again. The use of resources and manpower seemed insane compared to the trivial nature of my supposed “crime”. Had the Kafkaesque response perhaps been triggered by some kind of translation problem?
Thinking that a huge, federal country would be more difficult to navigate for a Norwegian police team on a profoundly illegal mission, I decided to fly to the United States. In the past, the US government had shown considerable interest in my Iraq research, to the point where they had paid me to fly over from Oslo to DC to give lectures and presentations on political and constitutional issues several times every year since 2005. Why couldn’t I work for them instead? If they paid me a salary instead of all the air tickets, the difference wouldn’t be that big.
The Norwegians came after me to the United States as well. Easily recognisable officers of the organised crime unit within the Oslo police even followed me into research libraries where they deliberately sat next to me and made noise in order to disturb my work on Iraq. Instead of working into the small hours with Iraq analyses in the way I had used to, I now had to stay focused just on trying to get some hours of sleep. With a whole team of police officers paid by the Norwegian government for the sole purpose of harassing me 24/7, the odds were stacked against me.
With all the police around, I was reluctant to make the first move towards the US government. I met friends at the State Department, the Pentagon and the CIA, and considered my options for reaching out to someone high up to explain my predicament. But even meetings I had at these institutions had evidently been infiltrated by the FBI on the request of the Norwegians. When I got invited to a Middle East event in Qatar in May I decided to go there first instead, hoping that the harassment would stop simply due to the complications of geography and culture. This, in turn, would enable me to safely reach out to people in Washington through a US diplomatic mission. To have Norwegian police in Qatar would be absurd, I thought.
When the same Norwegian police officers came after me to Qatar anyway, I decided to travel to one more Middle Eastern country before contacting a US embassy. I flew to Jordan and on 17 May 2011 offered my services to someone who said he was a CIA station officer at the US embassy in Amman. I basically told him I would be happy to work for the US government anywhere in the world on Iraq or Middle East related subjects as long as they could bring the illegal police harassment to an end. This was not entirely implausible: I am the only academic to have appeared on the prestigious annual Iraq conference of the Office of Iraq Analysis within the CIA five years in a row between 2006 and 2010. The US government has a chronic shortage of people who can read Arabic, and has even fewer who can navigate issues like Iraqi federalism, Shiite internationalism and Iraqi constitutional issues using primary Arabic materials, advanced searches and Deep Web exploration. The areas that I have expertise in are among the core drivers that decide global oil prices and developments in Islamic radicalism; not even a superpower can afford to ignore them.
Nothing came out of my initiative in Jordan. Until this day I am not convinced that the person I met in Amman was really CIA. There were FBI officers travelling with the Norwegians to Qatar, so it is quite possible that they were in Amman too. I can’t claim it was an attempted sting operation (at times they seemed more interested in asking about the reason for my conflict with the Oslo police than about Iraq), but I am pretty sure it wasn’t the real thing.
By the time I came to the Netherlands in June 2011, the idea of going public with the whole affair began to mature. But blogging about my story was not the number one option. First, I thought that by simply staying over a long period in the Netherlands, Norwegian police would find it even more difficult to justify their continued involvement in the expensive and irrational harassment operation. Surely the Dutch police, in turn, would lose interest and shelve the increasingly scandalous project. Remember that the police stalking went on day and night. The authorities were wasting the money of taxpayers in both Norway and the Netherlands, and even criminalised some of them by luring them into cooperating with the illegal operation against me.
However, the nightmare continued in the Netherlands, with an increasingly heavy health toll for me. I suffer from a chronic inflammatory bowel disease (ulcerative colitis) and due to severe constipation during the worst sleep deprivation episodes in Norway in February 2011 I developed gastro-intestinal injuries which Dutch surgeons since have told me have become chronic. In November 2011, I sent an e-mail to several members of the Norwegian cabinet outlining my predicament in considerable detail and made it clear that my only desire was to live undisturbed somewhere and quietly continue my Iraq research. No response materialised. The Norwegian Labour party has a track record of supporting and promoting untraditional police methods, including police stalking.
In November 2011, I finally tried to enter into dialogue with the Oslo police through a Norwegian lawyer. The police failed to recognise the harassment operation, but did issue a letter to the effect that they had no criminal case against me. That gesture was however of limited value since the police kept instigating people in Norway to send me e-mail messages calculated to cause intimidation. Similarly, in the Netherlands, the stalkers were deliberately parading symbols associated with Norway all the time, including the Norwegian flag. I concluded that if I returned home, the harassment would most likely continue unabated and that it would be better to stay in the Netherlands. My hope was that by focusing on my Iraq research, I could convince the government there I was doing more good than harm.
However, even as I was covering the critical period of transition after the US withdrawal from Iraq in December 2011, the Dutch government kept sabotaging my Iraq research with daily and nightly disturbances. Police stalking is a well known method among Dutch police.
By April 2012, I had a satisfactory overview of the legal aspects of the case: Whereas what I had done in terms of street photography was perfectly legal (my photos were not even close to any of the two main legal red lines, i.e. nudity and/or stalking), almost every step the Norwegian police had taken was illegal and punishable with a maximum of 15 years under article 117a of the Norwegian penal code (psychological torture). I had been able to identify a handful of the most savage ringleaders in the Oslo police and some of the Dutch by full name and rank. Armed with this information, I submitted a formal complaint to the Norway’s independent police commission (Spesialenheten).
My complaint produced no immediate result. Having exhausted most other channels to no avail, by June blogging finally seemed a sensible alternative. But I decided I would do one more attempt to generate what I needed most: Witnesses willing to publicly confirm my unusual story. By that time I could name around 200 people, mostly in Norway and the Netherlands, who had cooperated criminally with the police against me. Some were even academics and people I formerly considered friends. However, only with the support of investigative journalists was it realistic that anyone would come forward and confirm the story.
I thought a third-person version of my case, timed to coincide with the release of the independent commission report on Norway’s 22 July 2011 terror attacks, might generate some media interest in Norway due to the close links between the two cases. Whereas the Oslo police had spent much of their undercover capacity on trailing me across the globe during the critical months before 22 July 2011, they had paid no attention whatsoever to the right-wing terrorist Anders Behring Breivik (despite the existence of tipoffs relating to him). The sharp contrast between the vast resources spent on illegalities against me and the failure to even follow up on Breivik is clearly the stuff of a major scandal. Accordingly, one week before the release of the official Norwegian 22 July report, I published my own version (still in the third person), outlining how the failed priorities of the Oslo police and their waste of taxpayer money had prevented them from tracking down Breivik prior to 22 July.
So far, the response to my blogging about police stalking has been underwhelming compared with what I experienced with writing on Iraq. It is depressingly more difficult to find readers who are interested in human rights abuse in Norway than in Iraq! The most specific result so far is that my employer, the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs, has intensified its effort to sack me for speaking out against torture by Norwegian police. Administratively, the institute is within the sphere of the ministry of education/knowledge. Meanwhile the ministry of justice appears to continue to finance the participation of personnel and resources of the Oslo police in the daily harassment operations which continue where I now am in the Asia-Pacific region.
Shifting to the first person should hopefully help address some credibility issues in my story. To anyone who may have doubt about the veracity of what I am describing, try to see this whole situation from my point of view: I was a successful Iraq analyst who got invited to conferences around the globe. 3,500 people subscribed to my website newsletters. I had a well-paid government job in an oil-rich country with one of the highest standards of living on the planet. What would be the rationality of suddenly complaining about Norwegian police persecution if there was no substance whatsoever to my story? Why would I put all my credibility and livelihood on the line with serious allegations if it was all a concoction?
I hope more people will now be able to understand that I cannot possibly write as much on constitutional and rule of law issues in Iraq as I used to. To lecture the Iraqis on democracy when I am being harassed extra-judicially and even tortured by my own so-called democratic government would amount to hypocrisy. Some of my most fundamental human rights under the UN and EU charters have been taken away from me by the Norwegian and Dutch governments. Each and every day for more than one and a half year these so-called democratic governments have paid officials overtime for the single purpose of making noise and wake me up at night. When I experience such conditions at home, how can I criticize conditions in Iraq with a straight face?
The reason that I am now a staunch critic of the police in Norway and the Netherlands is simply that they transformed me into this role. They gave me no other choice. I had signalled my willingness to move and settle down in a banana republic and quietly remain focused on Iraq if they would only stop mistreating me. But they cannot stop. The project is just too enticing in terms of the luxury hotel stays and the air miles earned by the police officers that take part in the “international cooperation effort” against me. Outside the police, no bureaucrat, politician or citizen collaborator has the courage to blow the whistle. The governments of Norway and the Netherlands don’t seem to give a damn about the fact that my Iraq work is still being read on a daily basis by analysts in NATO ally countries like the United States.
That’s why henceforth I shall not be debating the authoritarianism of Iraqi PM Maliki but instead pay attention to Norwegian PM Stoltenberg and his polices. That’s why I shall give up my research on Iraqi political parties and instead do my best to follow in the footsteps of the eminent Norwegian historian Jens Arup Seip, who in a path-breaking lecture in 1963 addressed what he saw as the “Stalinism” of the Norwegian Labour party. And that is the reason why I shall be revealing torture and other illegal methods used by the organised crimes unit of the Oslo police, and how political cover from certain pro-Labour figures in high places in the Norwegian government enables the Oslo police to engage in one of the most totalitarian police operations seen in peacetime Europe. Conversely, the transgressions of the Iraqi secret police and the interior ministry special forces I shall henceforth leave for others to debate. For sure, I will still try to keep track of Iraq with one eye and publish the occasional Iraq article, but the main focus of my research is now Norwegian police criminality. I have no other choice.
I hope readers with a declared interest in human rights will remain interested also when the focus moves to Western democracies. After all, to have a narrow regional focus on a subject like universal human rights can easily become something of a contradiction. In the end, only those who dare to stand up against human rights abuse at home will have true credibility when they address such issues in distant foreign countries.
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