The first world leader to face criminal charges related to the financial crisis, he has seen his face plastered in print across the globe, not in flattering profiles but in stories weighing whether he deserves blame for an entire country’s economic collapse.
Haarde is on trial for what he didn’t do, rather than what he did. In a matter of weeks a special court created to prosecute high-ranking government officials but never before convened in Iceland’s history is scheduled to decide whether he deserves up to two years in prison for failing to take proper action to avert financial catastrophe.
In late 2008, as a credit crunch swept the globe, Iceland’s once-thriving banks folded under the weight of their massive and risky financial bets. The country’s currency collapsed. Thousands of furious citizens protested in the streets, demanding accountability. They kicked Haarde out of office and swept his party, the Independence Party, from power. Haarde, who has an economics degree from Brandeis University and a master’s from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, had spent decades rising through the political ranks, only to leave in disgrace.
By September 2010, a fiercely divided Parliament voted to file formal charges against him. The indictment claims he displayed “serious malfeasance of his duties as prime minister in the face of major danger looming over Icelandic financial institutions and the state treasury, a danger that he knew of or should have known of.” Lawmakers chose not to charge three other former cabinet ministers on similar allegations.
“This is a political trial,” Haarde says, sounding equal parts weary and indignant. “Political opponents and enemies of mine decided to use the court system to get at me and my political party. ... It reminds me of uglier things in times past from other countries.”
But many lawmakers continue to push for the trial.
“Of course, there were many, many more people responsible,” said Margret Tryggvadottir, a member of Parliament who voted to prosecute all four former accused ministers. “It´s not fair, but the collapse was not fair to regular Icelanders who thought they were living in a normal and just society. ... He was prime minister, and he was the captain of the boat.”
As this small island country prepares to try its former leader, he remains a polarizing figure. A case meant to provide justice and closure has instead sparked renewed debate about whether one man should be held accountable for the sins of many.
“This is something we are struggling with. It threatens to rip the fabric of the society,” said Eirikur Bergmann, director of the Center for European Studies at Bifrost University in Iceland.