An End To The Neverending Nightmare?

Iceland's most controversial criminal case once again revisited
15.4.2013
Words by Snorri Páll Jónsson Úlfhildarson
“The nation has been unburdened of a nightmare,” Ólafur Jóhannesson, then Minister of Justice, proudly stated in parliament on February 3, 1977, at the end of a three-year investigation into the disappearance of two men. At a press conference in the Criminal Court of Reykjavík the day before, investigators announced that the mystery had been solved. German police officer Karl Schütz, who had been hired to solve the case[1],  outlined the official version of events, printed word by word in the daily newspaper Morgunblaðið the following day. Nothing stood in the way of handing out prison sentences—or so it seemed.

It was, however, not a nightmare for the nation, but for six people around 20-years-old, who at this point had been detained in the now demolished Síðumúli Prison[2] for more than a year where they confessed to having murdered the two men. What followed was a Kafkaesque court case wherein no corpses, no evidence and no realistic motives for the alleged murders materialised.

Long before the main court procedures, four of the defendants had repeatedly withdrawn their confessions, which they said were the result of physical and mental torture. However, these statements, most of which were never properly confirmed by the investigators, were not taken into account by the Criminal Court judges who convicted all six people in December 1977. Two of them received life sentences and the other four were given sentences ranging from 15 months to 16 years in prison. Three years later, Iceland's Supreme Court confirmed the convictions, but reduced the sentences.

Once released from prison, one of the convicted, Sævar Marinó Ciesielski, started a life-long struggle to restore his and his co-defendants dignity. The results were mixed: while public opinion certainly shifted in favour of Sævar's fight, his attempts to have the case retried by the Supreme Court were unsuccessful. As time passed, he turned to life on the streets until he was finally “outlawed from Iceland,” as he said to an Icelandic passer-by in Copenhagen where he spent his last days before passing away in July 2011.

Following Sævar's demise and a public outcry, Minister of the Interior Ögmundur Jónasson commissioned a task force in 2011 to examine the case and how it was executed. Their conclusions were published at the end of last month bringing a possible end to one of Iceland's most controversial court cases.

THE CASE OF GUÐMUNDUR AND GEIRFINNUR

In late January 1974, 18-year-old Guðmundur Einarsson disappeared after having gone to a dance in Hafnarfjörður[3]. Almost ten months later, on the eve of November 19, 32-year-old Geirfinnur Einarsson left his home in Keflavík and was never seen again. Despite extensive investigations, neither of their bodies nor any possible motives for murders were found.

A year after Geirfinnur's disappearance, Sævar and Erla Bolladóttir were arrested for embezzlement, a case completely unrelated to the two disappearances, but the police quickly turned the focus to Guðmundur's disappearance. After a week of interrogations, Erla was released and Kristján Viðar Viðarsson, Tryggvi Rúnar Leifsson and Albert Klahn Skaftason were arrested and detained. A week later, Morgunblaðið ran a front-page story about the custody of four men suspected of murdering Guðmundur. Soon, the police also linked them to the alleged murder of Geirfinnur, once again arresting Erla and Guðjón Skarphéðinsson.

In the beginning, the defendants denied having anything to do with the disappearances, but as interrogations continued, they made various confessions and withdrawals with different alleged crime scenes and motives. Halfway through the investigation, the above-mentioned Schütz was hired to take over the case. He brought new interrogation methods and sent regular updates to the media, which they printed without question. Charges were eventually issued, court hearings started and sentences were delivered.

UNRELIABLE TESTIMONIES RESULTING FROM DURESS AND PREJUDICE

When Ögmundur Jónasson commissioned the task force in late 2011, the torturous treatment of the defendants had become widely known so nothing really surprising resulted from their work. It included a review of the case, its official, unofficial and recently discovered documents, as well as interviews with the living convicts. Only a psychological assessment of the convicts' statements, conducted by judicial psychologist Gísli Guðjónsson—one of the world's leading authorities on false confessions—brought more shameful facts to light[4].

The assessment's most outright conclusion is that the defendants' testimonies during interrogations and before the court were unreliable or false and should never have been considered grounds for convictions. This is due in part to the unprecedented number of interrogations—close to 200 in some of the defendants' cases—which outnumbered the actual debriefings where the confessions are said to have taken place. During these interrogations, the defendants heard new versions of the alleged crime scenes—coming from either the investigators or other defendants—to which they were supposed to confess.

The report’s authors highlighted the unusual length of the defendant's detention and isolation. At a March 25 press conference in which the task force announced its conclusions, Gísli stated that he knew of no parallel to this apart from the US-run isolation and torture camp at Guantanamo Bay. They also confirmed the mental and physical duress experienced by the defendants, to which the defendants themselves, former prison guards and then prison chaplain, reverend Jón Bjarman, have already testified. To name just one example, Erla was sexually molested by a policeman and a prison guard while in custody.

During the investigation, “the focus seems to have been on harmonising [the defendants'] accounts of something they probably knew nothing about,” the report states. The investigators and judges viewed the defendants through ‘tunnel-vision,’ putting all the weight on forcing confessions. By turning a blind eye to anything in favour of the defendants' case, the investigators violated their role of bringing to light all evidence that could lead to either a conviction or an acquittal. A key factor here seems to have been the defendants' marginal social status and petty-criminal background, which was enough for the establishment to view them as murderers[5].

Believing that “justice would prevail” in court, as Tryggvi's prison diary suggests, it seems they hoped confessions would release them from custody. Not long into their detention, however, they came to believe that nothing they said really counted, except for their confessions. This applied to their repeated confession withdrawals, which were systemically dismissed by the investigators and judges as attempts to muddle the investigation. Additionally, their right to assistance from a lawyer was limited, and some of their lawyers seemed to view them as guilty[6].

All of the above and more led them to confess, and, in some cases, believe that they were guilty which is in line with the results of Gísli's decades-long studies into the causes and nature of false confessions. It also shows how determined the investigators were to prove them guilty. In fact, due to the structure of Iceland’s legal system at the time, they were partly the same people that later convicted them in court.

THE DIRTIEST MARK IN ICELAND'S LEGAL SYSTEM

So what does this new report mean for the future of the case? The task force suggests three possibilities: First, the State Prosecutor could decide to reopen the case. Second, the convicted could request a retrial. Third, Parliament could propose a bill requesting a complete retrial. For now, it's still unclear which one of these will be chosen.

Sævar's son, law student Hafþór Sævarsson, who calls the case “the dirtiest mark on Iceland's legal system during the republic,” believes the third option to be the most convenient. As current law doesn't allow for the retrial of cases where the defendant is deceased, Hafþór sees this as the only viable way to get the case retried for his father and Tryggvi, neither of whom are still alive.

“My father lived to clear his name off this case, but justice didn't prevail while he still lived,” Hafþór says. “It's a reasonable demand that those who have passed away can have the opportunity for vindication.”

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A Timeline Of The Main Events

January 27, 1974:

Guðmundur Einarsson disappears.

November 19, 1974: Geirfinnur Einarsson disappears.

December 13, 1975:
Sævar Ciesielski and Erla Bolladóttir are arrested and detained.

December 20, 1975:
Erla is released.

December 23, 1975:
Kristján Viðar Viðarsson, Tryggvi Rúnar Leifsson and Albert Klahn
Skaftason are arrested and detained.

December 30, 1975:
Morgunblaðið reports the arrests of four men suspected of murdering
Guðmundur and they are soon also implicated in the alleged murder of
Geirfinnur.

May 4, 1976:
Erla is arrested and detained.

Summer of 1976:
German police officer Karl Schütz takes over the investigation.

November 12, 1976:
Guðjón Skarphéðinsson is arrested and detained.

February 2, 1977:
The investigation is called off at a press conference held at
Reykjavík's Criminal Court. Interrogations continue until court
procedure starts.

December 19, 1977:
All six are convicted and sentenced in 
the Criminal Court.

February 22, 1980:
All six are convicted and sentenced in Iceland's Supreme Court.

July 15, 1997:
Iceland's Supreme Court rejects Sævar's request for a rehearing.

October 8, 1998:
Then Prime Minister Davíð Oddsson describes the case as “judicial
murder.”

March 18, 1999:
Iceland's Supreme Court rejects Sævar's second request for a rehearing.

June 22, 2000:
The Supreme Court rejects Erla's request for a rehearing.

May 1, 2009:
Tryggvi passes away, 58-years-old.

July 13, 2011:
Sævar passes away, 56-years-old.

October 7, 2011:
The Ministry of the Interior commissions a work-group to examine the
case.

March 25, 2013:
The work-group turns in a 500-page report detailing its conclusions.

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1      Before coming to Iceland, Schütz had, for instance, been involved in hunting down the first generation of the urban guerrillas of Rote Armee Fraktion (Red Army Faction or Baader-Meinhof).

2      The conditions in Síðumúli underwent heavy criticism in a 1994 survey by the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. See: www.cpt.coe.int/documents/isl/1994-08-inf-eng.pdf.

3      ‘The Case of Guðmundur and Geirfinnur’ is far too long, multi-layered and complicated to be explained properly in a short article like this, especially if one wants to take into account the broadest historical perspective and all possible theories—conspiracy or not—of the real motives behind the treatment and conviction of the defendants.

4     Just as the case itself, the task force's conclusions are way too extensive to be explained in a short article. A full reading of the report is thus highly recommended to Icelandic readers: http://www.innanrikisraduneyti.is/media/frettir-2013/GogG_heildarskjal---fyrir-vef-IRR.pdf.

5      This view was again voiced in 1997, following the Supreme Court's decision not to rehear the case, when Ragnar Hall, acting State Prosecutor, stated that the convicted were “no choirboys,” as if that was enough to sentence innocent people. This (non)argument is still occasionally seen in media outlet's comment sections.

6     One of the entries in the Síðumúli Prison journal states that Sævar's lawyer, Jón Oddsson, called the prison, announcing that he wanted to come and “grind Sævar.” When the Supreme Court rejected Sævar's request for rehearing in 1997, Örn Clausen, Albert's lawyer, embraced the verdict when interviewed by newspaper DV.

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