Anders Breivik trial displays Norway’s formal legal system

April 17, 2012

OSLO, Norway — In a scene unimaginable in many countries, Norway’s worst mass killer since World War II gets to explain his fanatical views to the court and the world for days dressed up in a business suit.

Two days into Anders Behring Breivik’s terror trial, the studied formality with which Norway’s legal system deals with a confessed killer who rejects its authority is baffling to outsiders, even to some Norwegians.

On Monday, the day the trial started, Norwegian prosecutors and even lawyers representing the families of his 77 victims shook Breivik’s hand as proceedings began.

On Tuesday, the 33-year-old far-right militant was allowed to give an hour-long address to the court, reading from a statement that summarized the 1,500-page anti-Islamic manifesto that he posted online before his bomb-and-shooting rampage nine months ago.

“The attacks on July 22 were a preventive strike. I acted in self-defense on behalf of my people, my city, my country,” Breivik declared, demanding to be found innocent of terror and murder charges.

He set off a bomb outside the government headquarters in Oslo, killing eight, then drove to Utoya island outside the capital and massacred 69 people in a shooting spree at the governing Labor Party’s youth summer camp on Utoya island. It was the most “spectacular” attack by a nationalist militant since World War II, he boasted.

The court’s main judge interrupted Breivik several times Tuesday, asking him to get to the point, but let him continue after he threatened that he would either finish his speech or not speak at all.

“It is critically important that I can explain the reason and the motive” for the massacre, said Breivik.

Breivik, who has admitted the attacks, said it doesn’t matter if he’s sent to prison, because living in a country ruled by “multiculturalists” was a prison in itself. The main point of his defense is to avoid an insanity ruling, which would deflate his political arguments.

Mette Yvonne Larsen, a lawyer representing victim’s families, also interrupted Breivik, saying she was getting email and text message complaints from victims who felt the defendant was turning the trial into a platform to profess his extremist views. But even she showed some sympathy for Breivik’s right to explain his actions.

“We understand that the court allows it, but we felt it was our duty as lawyers for the bereaved to intervene,” Larsen told reporters.

Norwegian legal experts said it’s important that the country’s legal traditions apply to everyone, even Breivik, whose massacre shocked the wealthy, peaceful nation. The justice system here isn’t about “revenge, but sober, dignified treatment” for everyone accused of a crime, said Thomas Mathiesen, a professor of sociology of law at the University of Oslo.

“It is deeply ingrained in Norwegian tradition and fundamental values. If it lasts all the way through the 10 weeks of this trial, and I think it will, we have an important message to the world,” he said.

But even in Norway, dignity has its limits. Five judges are hearing the case — three of them citizen judges, ordinary people who serve four-year terms. One of the citizen judges was removed Tuesday after media reports said he had posted comments in an online forum saying that Breivik deserved the death penalty, which doesn’t exist in Norway. He was replaced by another citizen judge.

If found mentally sane — the key issue to be decided in the trial — Breivik could face a maximum 21-year prison sentence or an alternate custody arrangement that would keep him locked up as long as he is considered a menace to society.

If declared insane he would be committed to psychiatric care for as long as he’s considered ill.

“What I see happening in Norway with Breivik’s statement is a trial about politics, not legal evidence,” said Jeff Kass, a reporter who wrote a book about the 1999 U.S. Columbine school shooting.

He noted that in the United States, it’s the defense attorney — not the defendant — who does the talking.”It is almost always considered a bad idea to have the defendant himself or herself testify. For one, it opens them up to too much questioning — as the prosecutor is now doing with Breivik,” Kass said.

Prosecutors shaking hands with defendants would be a rare sight in the U.S. but also in neighboring Nordic countries, which share Norway’s humane view on criminal justice.

Some thought things went too far when even the three lawyers representing victims shook hands with Breivik.

“That was a bit strange,” said John Christian Elden, who represents some survivors but is not participating in the trial.

Breivik’s request to wear a uniform was rejected by the court and police instead fetched at suit from his home.

“This is a completely normal way to dress in a Norwegian court, even in a serious criminal matter,” his lawyer Geir Lippestad said. “We don’t have orange jumpsuits and that kind of thing in Norway.”

In his address, Breivik lashed out at Norwegian and European governments for embracing immigration and multiculturalism. He claimed to be speaking as a commander of an anti-Islam militant group he called the Knights Templar — a group that prosecutors say does not exist.

Maintaining he acted out of “goodness, not evil” to prevent a wider civil war, Breivik vowed, “I would have done it again.”

He compared Norway’s Labor Party youth wing to the Hitler Youth and called their annual summer gathering an “indoctrination” camp. But he later told prosecutors he would have preferred to attack a conference of Norwegian journalists instead, but wasn’t able to carry that out.

Asked why he started crying in court on Monday, when prosecutors showed an anti-Muslim film that Breivik posted on YouTube before the attacks, he said: “I was thinking about Norway and Europe, which are ruled by politicians and journalists killing our country. I was thinking that my country is dying.”

Families of the victims were upset at his testimony.

“I think it’s important to underline that we don’t view Breivik as a politician in this matter. He is a mass murderer,” Trond Henry Blattmann, whose 17-year-old son was killed on Utoya, told The Associated Press outside the court.

Even his lawyers conceded that Breivik’s self-defense defense is unlikely to succeed and said the main thing was to convince the court that Breivik is not insane.

In his testimony Tuesday, Breivik rejected suggestions that he has a narcissistic personality disorder.

“July 22, wasn’t about me. July 22 was a suicide attack. I wasn’t expecting to survive that day,” he said. “A narcissist would never have given his life for anyone or anything.”

Nils Christie, a Norwegian criminology professor, published an op-ed after the attacks saying Breivik should be reintroduced to Norwegian society eventually. The way Norway had responded to the attacks — showing love for one another rather than hatred for Breivik — made him proud of his country, Christie said Tuesday.

“Breivik is one of us,” Christie told AP. “Norway is a society with relatively small divisions between people. We see each other as fellow humans even when we disagree. The horrible thing he did, he is nevertheless one of us.”

___

Associated Press writers Bjoern H. Amland and Julia Gronnevet in Oslo and Malin Rising and Louise Nordstorm in Stockholm contributed to this report.

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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