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How to punish a terrorist? The Norwegian court’s judgment for Anders Breivik

Published on September 3, 2012 by: in: Society

Friday deliverance of the judgment for Anders Breivik was accompanied by huge emotions, emotions utterly reasonable given the enormity of tragedy which Norwegians experienced from him slightly over a year ago. The trial, which had been under way in Oslo for few months, was unprecedented and ended with a verdict of 21 years in prison for the perpetrator – the highest possible punishment in Norway. Unfortunately, controversies connected with the sentence as well as with the conviction don’t stop  and surely they will still accompany us for many years.

When at the end of July last year mass media all over the world got the information about bomb and shooting attacks in Oslo, almost everyone was asking the same question, how it is possible that such an incident took place in Norway, being the symbol of prosperity, multiculturalism and democracy. The behavior of Breivik himself during the court hearings, after he had been captured and imprisoned, proved that the problem of extremism in Norway is bigger than it was previously presumed. During one of the hearings the perpetrator almost with a smile on his face made a Nazi greeting gesture, which makes most Europeans thrill of anxiety.

Still before the deliverance of judgment both in Norway and abroad a fierce discussions about possible conviction and Norway’s justice system were ongoing. When the experts declared that the highest possible punishment which can be adjudged in Norway is 21 years in prison – in addition spent in relatively comfortable conditions, even in comparison with Poland – the public opinion boiled with indignation. Millions of people all over the world watched the hearing recordings, a part of which weren’t made public, asking themselves many questions, among which one of the most important was that concerning Breivik’s soundness of mind. For the majority of us nobody sane would be able to kill in cold blood dozens of people because of any motives. Potential diagnosis of his  insanity would lead him to being placed in a psychiatric ward for many years, yet the conditions in such institutions in Norway are even better than in prisons. Generally, such wards aren’t closed what would let Breivik to have a regular contact with the outside world and sharing his beliefs with it. However, during the hearings it turned out that despite thorough medical examinations carried out by the best specialists in the country, diagnosing him explicitly with mental illness wasn’t successful. The court needed a clear statement recognizing or excluding such an illness. Though there was a lack of such statement. One of the worst results of diagnosing him with the illness would have a completely different dimension. As one of victims’ families advocates stated in an interview for English “The Guardian”: If he is insane, not fully responsible for himself, if he isn’t guilty, it will mean that we should commiserate with him …”. With regard to the perpetrator, who committed such acts, compassion seems to be the least adequate feeling.

picture: KarmaUnc

The sentence

Sentencing Breivik to 21 years in prison as well as granting him the possibilities of applying for early release from prison yet after 10 years won approval of as much as 85% of Norwegians. The judge pronouncing the sentence emphasized that it can be repeatedly extended in case of observing ceaseless symptoms of posing a threat to the society. It means de facto that the perpetrator can spend in prison whole life, unless he subjects to the rehabilitation process, being the key element of Norwegian penitentiary system. However, many people ask themselves a question, whether in case of Breivik, this process will have any sense at all, because he seems so fanatic, that even 20 years of intensive rehabilitation actions can change nothing in his beliefs.

Not only the rehabilitation process is facing a wave of criticism and incomprehension, these reactions concern the whole Norwegian legal and judicial system as well as deliberations about its future. Now we can observe that both judicial representatives and public authorities by all means try to prove that it hasn’t failed in contact with, undoubtedly, precedential dimension of the case, as the Breivik’s one turned out. However, virtually both the reaction of emergency services before and during the attacks as well as the course of the trial are notably an evidence of something reverse. Despite assurances of Norwegian PM Jens Stoltenberg, stating that the court passed the exam and dealt with the case in effective and organized way, many questions concerning the real effectiveness of judicial sphere in Norway occurred. It seems hard to understand i. e. the ignorance of the aspect of perpetrator’s views popularization, what obviously was and still is one of his main goals, through almost complete broadcast of his hearings in court. Additionally, putting him in a cell with access to the Internet, enabling him to publish and spread his views further, would be, if the situation actually took place, very unreasonable. The support of extremists’ groups in Norway is small, but constant, that is way it seems relevant  to conduct a strategy fully eliminating propagation of such contents in public sphere.

Norwegians, however, with admirable consistency, defend both the course of trial, the judgment of the court and the system itself. They are proud that even in case of a man having such status as Breivik, they succeeded in retaining dignity and humanity. Ironically, Norwegians themselves do not debate very often about changing the system, even the most harmed families of attack victims speak about the trial result in a positive way. The most important for everyone is that this man, fully conscious of his acts will be punished as strictly as the Norwegian law allows. To us, Poles, it is hard to understand, but the Norwegians strongly believe in their legal system. This fact is an evidence of Norwegian democracy stability, whose rules have been developed over hundreds of years and which, despite challenges facing them, are still very strong.


The debate about changes in legal and judicial system, as well as changes in attitude towards citizens of  Norway goes on and surely will end with introducing some modifications. However, it seems that Norwegian authorities are far from revolution and aim at implementing the most reasonable solutions, under the least possible influence of emotions. The thing which is the most important rather won’t undergo changes, Norwegians want to remain open, tolerant and trusting people. As the specialists notice oblivion will be the biggest Anders Breivik’s failure. The propagation of his “merits” and notions gives him immortality and reminds many people of him – people who, to the end, aren’t able to deal with civilization changes and consider following in his footsteps.

Translation: Katarzyna Kołodziej

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About Ewa Litke

Graduate of the Politics at the Department of the International and Political Relations at Łódź University. Studied at the University of Eastern Finland in Joensuu and in 2011 did internship at the European Parliament. She is interested in nearly all issues connected to Scandinavia, mainly political. Great fan of lounging around Finnish lakesides, secretly in love with Swedish kötbullar.

Fredrich Naumann Foundation For The Freedom
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