Protests in Front of Parliament Yesterday, Foreign Minister Accused of Possible Hate Speech

Following remarks made by Foreign Minister and Independence Party chairperson Bjarni Benediktsson last Friday regarding both the tents of Palestinian protesters and their allies in front of Parliament in particular and asylum seekers in general, protests were held in front of Parliament yesterday. Attendees gathered both to criticise the government’s policies towards Palestinian asylum seekers and to call on the government to show substantial support for Palestine.

In addition, the refugee and asylum seeker assistance NGO Solaris has said that the Foreign Minister’s remarks possibly fall under Article 233a of the General Penal Code, which is Iceland’s law on hate speech.

Family re-unification

At around 3:00 PM yesterday afternoon, protesters gathered in front of Parliament, many bearing the Palestinian flag and slogans showing support for Palestine and the asylum seekers who have been camping in front of Parliament since December 27th. Mayor of Reykjavík Einar Þorsteinsson has said that they have a license to camp on this property, and that their protests have been peaceful. RÚV reports that the license is set to expire tomorrow, January 24th, but that an extension of this permit has been applied for.

Intense but peaceful

Those camping in front of Parliament are doing so in large part because Iceland’s government has an established policy of family re-unification for those granted international protection in Iceland. The government has been criticised for not assisting in retrieving family members of asylum seekers from Gaza, while Minister of Justice Guðrún Hafsteinsdóttir has contended that the government is not obliged to do so.

They have also called for a meeting with relevant government ministers, and for authorities to cease deporting Palestinian asylum seekers from Iceland. As none of these demands have been met, and with the Foreign Minister’s recent remarks calling the tents “a tragedy” as well as calling for increased police powers and tightening border restrictions, protesters assembled en masse in front of Parliament yesterday afternoon, with many just outside the entrance. Police were called at that point, but saw no cause to intervene.

Minister has “neglected his government duties”

Meanwhile, Solaris responded to the Finance Minister’s remarks with a Facebook post of their own, saying in part:

“While the minister has neglected his governmental duties and continues to refuse to meet with the Palestinian community in Iceland with regards to family reunification for their family members in Gaza, he chooses instead to use his public influence to spread misinformation about community members at their most vulnerable moment.”

They accuse Bjarni Benediktsson of conflating those exercising their legal right to apply for international protection with organised crime. They add further that his remarks may well fall under Article 233a of the General Penal Code, often known as Iceland’s hate speech law, which states:

“Anyone who publicly mocks, defames, denigrates or threatens a person or group of persons by comments or expressions of another nature, for example by means of pictures or symbols, for their nationality, colour, race, religion, sexual orientation or gender identity, or disseminates such materials, shall be fined or imprisoned for up to 2 years.”

“Free to disagree”

For his part, Bjarni Benediktsson has dismissed this accusation, stating that people are free to have differences of opinion in a democratic society, including the opinion to disagree with his opinion.

Solaris also stated that they have witnessed numerous increased examples of hate speech, including threats and encouragement of violence towards people seeking international protection, and have filed charges with the police regarding some of them.

“This is a moment where we as a community must continue to show our rejection of deplorable attempts to undermine democracy, that we stand with and for human rights, hold our elected government officials accountable for their duties and intervene in hateful discourses against vulnerable members of our society,” they write in closing.

Deep North Episode 58: Disaster on Dark Seas

ES goðafoss

On the morning of November 20, 1944, a single U-boat cruised silently at periscope depth beneath the rough waves of the North Atlantic, lurking just a few kilometres off the Northwest coast of Iceland’s Reykjanes peninsula. The lone periscope was virtually invisible in the turbulent grey ocean waters. The German submarine, type VIIC/41, designated U-300, was commanded by 24-year-old Lieutenant Fritz Hein with a crew of 50 men barely out of their teens. Their mission was simple: To attack and destroy Allied vessels off the southwestern tip of Iceland as they approached the Icelandic mainland from North America. The bigger the ship they could sink, the better.

Read the story here.

Embattled Minister on Medical Leave

Svandís Svavarsdóttir

Svandís Svavarsdóttir, minister of food, agriculture, and fisheries, announced yesterday that she is on medical leave. In a Facebook post, she divulged that yesterday morning she received a diagnosis of breast cancer and will undergo surgery and treatment in the coming weeks.

“I face this challenge upright, serene, and optimistic,” she wrote. “All my efforts will go towards this with my people by my side.”

Vote of no confidence withdrawn

As Alþingi reconvened today, Svandís was set to face a vote of no confidence. The Alþingi Ombudsman concluded earlier this month that the decision made by Svandís last summer to temporarily stop whaling was not in accordance with the law. She had announced her decision in June due to an “unequivocal” opinion on animal welfare produced by the Icelandic Food and Veterinary Authority (MAST). She argued that in light of the opinion, she would have no choice but to postpone the start of whaling season.

Svandís, a member of the Left-Green Movement, has faced heavy criticism from MPs of the Independence Party, her coalition partners. The CEO of Iceland’s only whale hunting operation had threatened to sue for damages caused by the shorter whaling season. The hunting of whales remains a controversial practice in Iceland and has been protested by several local and international animal rights groups.

Inga Sæland, chairperson of the People’s Party, had only just submitted the motion of no confidence when Svandís announced her diagnosis. Her party started the process of withdrawing the motion right away. “This is shocking,” Inga told Vísir. “Terrible news. It wouldn’t be in good taste to vote on a person who’s not present in Alþingi to defend herself. She’s a hard working woman. I wish her the very best. She’ll battle this with serenity.”

Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir will act as minister in Svandís’ stead during her medical leave.