Police State Aspects in Norway: The Absence of Prosecutorial Independence
by Reidar Visser
I had planned to finish an article on the latest developments in Iraq today, but the police harassment operation against me continues unabatedly 24/7, with continuous use of unconventional electronic torture devices that are likely to kill me sooner rather than later. This leaves me with no other choice but to remain focused on Norwegian police criminality and the rotten Norwegian government which is ultimately responsible for the serious human rights breaches involved in my case.
In order to make sense of it all, I am trying to isolate factors that relate to my own individual case from more general and systemic factors that pertain to Norway and other countries involved. With respect to the individual level, I was obviously vulnerable to police harassment because of social isolation. Ever since 2003, I had been working on Iraq-related issues 7 days a week, maybe 70 hours per week on average. Before that, I used to have a normal social life; by 2011, when the police began harassing me, I had few friends in Oslo where I lived. My social network consisted of Iraq-related acquaintances spread around the world. Also, in terms of my identity and citizenship I was an easy target: Having been born in Norway to parents of different nationalities, I had an incomplete sense of belonging to Norway (where I grew up but had no citizenship) as well as to the Netherlands (where I had citizenship but had never lived).
Then of course I had engaged in somewhat unusual activity, involving (perfectly legal) street photography for a fashion history project. This is where systemic issues peculiar to Norway and the Netherlands come into play. Recent weeks have seen much controversy over another, rather massive case of street photography that became controversial in the United States: Streetshot photos published on the Reddit website. Those photos differed from the ones I took in several important respects: They were focused mainly on underage women; they deliberately targeted people with minimal clothing on; they were published on the internet for huge audiences without anyone’s consent; the publication was accompanied by captions or category labels that were openly sexist in nature and clearly intended to sexualise the pictures; there was an outspoken intention to shoot the images surreptitiously for no other purpose than publishing them on the internet in the most sexualised format possible. Nonetheless, even though the legal framework governing photography in the US is similar to Norway, with respect to Reddit there was never any suggestion that this was something US law enforcement ought to look into. Instead internet vigilantism ensued, including the public outing of one of the most prolific Reddit contributors, Violentacrez. For better or worse, it seemed something of a free-speech liberal equilibrium had been achieved: If a citizen engages in controversial publication he or she may also see controversial accusations coming their own way, too.
Not from the state, though. Not in the United States, anyway. But in my own case – a far more limited, academic-related case of street photography – the response was vicious state-sponsored bullying, persecution and torture, 24/7 for more than 600 days so far. This is exceptional to Norway and the Netherlands, and it relates to systemic issues. I have already enumerated a few of them: The close personal ties between Norwegian Labour party elites and torturers and human rights criminals in the organised crime department of the Oslo police; the Norwegian “Uday Hussein factor”, i.e. the police officers who do the actual hands-on torture include people who publicly rub shoulders with government ministers; earmark budgeting by the Norwegian Labour government for developing illegal police methods like police stalking; Norway’s oil wealth as a factor that generally facilitates wasteful spending in government departments; the absence of constitutional or legal protection for sexual minorities defined in non-gender terms in both Norway and the Netherlands; the lack of an independent police commission in the Netherlands and a very weak and government-dominated one in Norway. These are deep structural problems that are reflected not only in my case but in general issues relating to the rule of law in Norway and the Netherlands more broadly. In Norway, pre-trial detention is overused and psychiatric and child custody services have a reputation for authoritarianism; in the Netherlands there is a culture of impunity for police violence. In both countries, attempts by politicians to interfere with the work of the police or the judiciary are frequent.
There is one more general police-state aspect that I have refrained from commenting on thus far: The lack of prosecutorial independence in Norway. It is a little-known fact of comparative justice that Denmark and Norway are among the few countries in the Western world where the prosecution remains police-dominated. In most civil law countries (France, Germany, the Netherlands etc.), the judiciary is in the lead with investigations, sometimes with investigative judges. In most common law countries (UK, the US, Australia, Canada, New Zealand etc.) – some of which were previously comparable to Denmark and Norway for their police-led prosecutions – the trend over the past decades, if not earlier, has been towards independent prosecutors (district attorneys in the US) or prosecution services that are formally separate from the police.
Conversely, Denmark and Norway stand out for the more extensive role accorded to the police in the prosecution, and especially to a group of so-called “police lawyers” in those two countries. Theoretically, these police lawyers also belong to a prosecution service headed by regional prosecutors (statsadvokat) and a national one (riksadvokat); however, administratively they are attached to police districts. The higher echelons of the system – i.e. the “pure” prosecution service – tend to get involved only in very serious cases.
Proponents of the Danish-Norwegian system claim that the process whereby representatives of the prosecution are stationed in police districts enhances judicial control of the investigative process. The counter-argument, obviously, relates to the very real danger that during the course of that process, the judicial officers get progressively further removed from the judicial culture from which they originate. If this goes far enough, it will reach the point where the police lawyers become completely co-opted by the police instead of acting as a check on them. Their relations to the prosecution services as such are increasingly a matter of fiction.
It can be further argued that this tendency of police co-option of members of the prosecution is actually far more pronounced in Norway than it is in Denmark. Key variables in this respect are numbers of police lawyers and hierarchy. For an instructive comparison, consider the police districts of Oslo in Norway and Fyn in Denmark, both with a size of roughly half a million inhabitants. In Fyn in Denmark, there are 5 permanent, royally appointed police lawyers with defined thematic specialisations (advokaturchef in Danish); these in turn report to a chefsanklager (literally this means “chief prosecutor” but in practice s/he is the “chief of the police lawyers” and in turn responsible to a regional “state prosecutor” who is part of the actual, centralised prosecution service). By way of contrast, in Oslo police district in Norway, there are a whopping 140 police lawyers, 40 times more than in a similarly sized district in Denmark! There is no hierarchy and the turnover rate appears to be very high.
Other variables only underline the impression of a ragtag prosecution service in Norway. Whereas in Denmark the police lawyers are non-uniformed and work in a joint office, in Norway, police lawyers are uniformed as police and spread across the police departments instead of having a joint office of judicial expertise. Their degree of co-option into police culture is very high. To the extent that there is group ethic, it seems to relate to the police rather than to the prosecution. With high salaries in the private sectors, those law graduates that end up as police lawyers aren’t necessarily the best material available; some Norwegian police lawyers are notorious for their cluelessness.
In other words, Norwegian police lawyers walk like police and talk like police. In my case I have even had two famous police lawyers participate in harassment activities directed against me! When members of the prosecution become so enmeshed in the criminal culture of the police that they participate even in extra-judicial punishment, how can one ever dream about due process and a just prosecution? In Norway, before the pre-trial hearing stage is even reached, police lawyers have so wide-ranging prerogatives that they can do exceptional harm to innocent individuals in terms of unlawful surveillance or baseless detention – even enabling personal vendettas by their police colleagues if they want. Chances are they will never be held accountable.
What this all means is that police state tendencies can thrive more easily in Norway than in other countries. Due to the dispersion of judicial knowledge in the Norwegian prosecution system, there are fewer checks and balances and less resistance to silly ideas by police officers who are making up their own laws. In this way, the prosecution in Norway is far more susceptible to pressures from police officers than in any comparable Western system. This structural abnormality is so pronounced that only a non-comparativist can fail to take notice. It should be made relevant in any requests from Norway for international judicial assistance, especially since claims to represent the “judicial authority” in Norway (as for example in European extradition issues) can sometimes come from people who for all practical purposes are the police themselves. In this way, the point made by Julian Assange in his extradition case from the UK to Sweden regarding the nature of the Swedish prosecution and its susceptibility to outside forces could actually be made with greater weight in the case of Norway.
Sadly, the Norwegian government itself is mostly ignorant about just how exceptional its judicial arrangements are in comparative perspective. During a recent parliamentary discussion of the European arrest warrant, the ministry of justice even argued that it is unnecessary to legislate which particular level within the prosecution (i.e. the police lawyers or the state prosecutor) should sign off on a warrant! (Prop. 137 L 2010-11 chapter 11.) One of the few brave voices to speak up against the police’s dominance of the prosecution is state prosecutor Lasse Qvigstad. Of course, also the judiciary itself has a reasonable track record, with an admirable handling of the Anders Behring Breivik case even at the district court level, and a recent supreme court decision relating to free speech vs sedition in the case of the blogger and activist Eivind Berge showing that the judiciary at least sometimes has the ability to resist pressures from the rest of the political establishment.
But the basic problem consists of all the extra-judicial business that never reaches the court. Unsurprisingly, that same police-led prosecution that ruined my life because of street photography recently exonerated former police colleagues for an actual crime involving photography: Surveillance-style monitoring of the US embassy in Oslo for a private security company on behalf of the embassy. This involved not only photography (which is legal) but also efforts to identify the individuals on the photographs and their political preferences (which isn’t). As if to underline the point, that same prosecution service also recently exonerated the former police officers for having failed to declare their income from their illegal US embassy job, thereby evading income tax which they should have paid. That is the same police that fought tooth and nail against the introduction of anti-torture articles in the Norwegian penal code a decade ago. They are supported by the same Labour party that is terrified a new Norwegian constitution with a greater emphasis on fundamental rights will give too much protection (“legalism”) to its citizens.
All of the above are important factors that somehow don’t seem to fit into Freedom House and Human Rights Watch analyses that continue to give Norway unrealistic scores in international comparisons. They need to be included to show that Norway, while in many ways one of the most progressive countries on the planet, is in some ways also a judicial pariah. Meanwhile, for every single act of harassment and torture that I get subjected to by the police where I am, I’ll keep digging up and publishing dirt about Norway’s prime minister Jens Stoltenberg and his criminal Labour cronies – who bankroll this whole travesty, who are ultimately responsible, and who could have stopped it with a simple phone call if they had one inch of integrity. More torture means more revelations; that’s how it works. And there is plenty of material to work on regarding them and the rotten and corrupt system they preside over.