Anders Breivik, convicted of terrorism in 2012 for killing 77 people in Norway, sued the Norwegian government for placing him in solitary confinement. In a controversial decision, an Oslo district court ruled that Breivik's treatment is "inhumane." (Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post)

The crime was unthinkable. A mass slaying of devastating proportions — 77 fatalities, to be exact — perpetrated against innocents, many of them no older than 25.

The setting was idyllic, though it may never again be considered that way. A small Norwegian island called Utoya jutting out of a glacial lake, not far from Oslo, the capital. A popular site for summer camps, and in this particular summer of 2011, home to Norway’s largest political youth organization, the Workers’ Youth League.

And the killer?

His name, by now, reads like a collective wince: Anders Behring Breivik. A right-wing, Christian “crusader” who laid out his hatred for multiculturalism in a 1,500-page manifesto. He was 32-years-old when he detonated a bomb outside several government buildings and went on a shooting rampage across Utoya, opening fire on every young camper in his line of sight.

“My name is Commander Anders Behring Breivik of the Norwegian Anti-Communist Resistance Movement,” Breivik told a police dispatcher during a break in the shooting. “I wish to surrender.”

After being convicted of terrorism in 2012, Breivik was sentenced to 21 years behind bars — a light sentence, perhaps, to Americans, but the maximum that Norway allows (with the possibility for extension).


Breivik raises his fist as he arrives to the courtroom for the first day of his trial in Oslo in 2012. (Fabrizio Bensch/Reuters)

He has since been serving his time in what has often been called the most “humane” and luxurious prison system in the world.

But that reputation hasn’t been enough for Breivik, apparently. He sued the Norwegian government, claiming that authorities were violating the European Convention on Human Rights by placing him in solitary confinement. His living situation, Breivik said, was “inhuman.”

On Wednesday, an Oslo district court concluded that he was right.

“The prohibition of inhuman and degrading treatment represents a fundamental value in a democratic society,” the court said, according to the Associated Press. “This applies no matter what — also in the treatment of terrorists and killers.”

The AP reported that the court recommended the government lift some restrictions on Breivik’s social life. For instance, he can be allowed to meet other inmates in the high-security section or to talk to his attorney without a glass wall dividing them.

Authorities have not been sufficiently considerate of Breivik’s mental health, the court said. The government has been ordered to pay Breivik’s legal fees, the equivalent of $41,000, but no specific directives were given on how the mass killer’s circumstances should be changed.

Since 2013, Breivik has been housed in Skien prison, where his “inhuman” conditions include three private cells (for sleeping, studying and exercising), computer (but no Internet) access, phone conversations with a “female friend,” and the ability to play video games, watch TV and read newspapers at will.

Breivik has previously complained that his coffee was too cold and that he lacked moisturizer.


A prison guard walks outside Skien prison, some 130 km south west of Oslo. (Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP/Getty Images)

His lawsuit, however, focused on the idea that he was cut off from the rest of the world. The European Convention on Human Rights stipulates that individuals have “the right to respect for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence.”

In Breivik’s view, he was being deprived of this right because no one other than his mother had been allowed to visit him without the presence of a glass wall. He protested furthermore that there were heavy restrictions on the mail that he was allowed to send and receive (many from sympathizers and fellow far-right extremists), which the government has defended by saying they fear he will encourage more mass attacks.

“I expect them to do something about isolation and allow him to meet other people,” Breivik’s attorney, Oystein Storrvik, told the AP. “I am confident that he will not do any violence in the prison.”

Breivik’s behavior has not always supported this faith. At the start of the trial on his human rights lawsuit last month, he greeted the courtroom with a Nazi salute. In 2013, the AP reported, he wrote a letter stating that he knew how to “neutralize” prison guards and use the materials in his cells to make a dozen deadly weapons.

Nonetheless, the court described Breivik’s comportment as “peaceful, courteous and accommodating.”

The justice system’s treatment of the mass killer has tested Norway’s approach to incarceration. Compared to the U.S., the Scandinavian country’s light sentences and pastoral prison grounds “might as well be another galaxy.” But in response to Breivik’s suit, authorities said his conditions were plenty humane given the gravity of his actions.

The ruling Wednesday drew unexpected support from one Utoya island survivor.

“Our best weapon in fighting extremism is humanity,” Bjorn Ihler wrote on Twitter. “The ruling in the Breivik case shows that we acknowledge the humanity of extremists too.”

Ihler noted that some U.S. publications considered his stance “remarkable.” To this, he said, “I wish it wasn’t so.”

“Again: What Breivik did was inhumane, which is why it’s crucial to treat him humanely,” Ihler said. “He doesn’t set the premises for how we treat others.” The activist and writer explained that his beliefs were “founded in experiences from my work with former jihadists, far righters and other former extremists.”

Not everyone was in agreement.

“It’s pathetic,” Lisbeth Royneland, who lost her 18-year-old daughter to Breivik, told the AP at the start of the trial. “It’s a farce.”

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