No Laws in Place for Pardoning Drowned Woman 300 Years Later Skip to content

No Laws in Place for Pardoning Drowned Woman 300 Years Later

There is no law in place to pardon or reprieve Halldóra Jónsdóttir, who was drowned in Fljótsdalur valley close to 300 years ago. Halldóra was sentenced to death for incest after her father raped her and murdered their child. Kristín Amalía Atladóttir, who has fought for Halldóra’s pardon, believes that there is a need for a change in laws or that Iceland take up a new form of pardon.

The grim case of Halldóra
Halldóra Jónsdóttir is one of over 50 women who were drowned for incest or ‘dulsmál’. Dulsmál is the old Icelandic word for when childbirth was hidden and the child murdered. Halldóra, who was born in 1700 in Þórarinsstaðir in Seyðisfjörður, lost her mother at a young age and lived in isolation with her father and younger siblings. At the age of 24, a rumour started that a baby might have been born in Þórarinsstaðir farm. Local authorities headed to the farm and dub up the body of a child from the dirt floor. Halldóra’s father, Jón Eyjólfsson, admitted to raping his daughter and burying the child without Halldóra’s knowledge. Jón was beheaded at Þingvellir and had his head placed on a spike, as was the punishment according to the Stóridómur law book in place at the time. Halldóra was also sentenced to death. A more lenient punishment was considered, but ultimately she was sentenced to execution as she had not publicly denounced her father. Halldóra was drowned in Bessastaðaá river in Fljótsdal valley on August 17 1729, five years after authorities heard about the child she bore in 1724. Her case is believed to be one of the most damning cases of the injustice women faced at the time.

Kristín Amalía Atladóttir has raised attention to this case and has formally applied for her pardon with Icelandic authorities. According to Kristín, the President and Prime Minister were positive towards her request, but the matter pertains to the Ministry of Justice. The President has permission from the constitution to pardon or reprieve individuals but does so according to requests from the Ministry of Justice. The Ministry of Justice stated in a letter that it is impossible to pardon Halldóra according to the law as the punishment has already been performed. A reprieve might be more fitting in this case, but it has not yet been placed into law and is not consistent with the main rule of an independent prosecution in Iceland. Furthermore, it would be abnormal for a minister to be able to interfere with criminal cases.

Restored honour
The President of Iceland had permission to provide restored honour until 2017 when the Parliament voted to revoke the permission after a case of restored honour ultimately brought down the Icelandic Government. The government disbanded as the father of the Prime Minister at the time, Bjarni Benediktsson, was among the individuals who provided a letter of recommendation for convicted paedophile Hjalti Sigurjón Hauksson to have his honour restored. This fact was hidden from other members of the Government and was later brought to light, ultimately bringing down the Government as members of the party Björt Framtíð voted to disband the majority. Restoring honour was an old Icelandic legal procedure which in effect allowed people who served their sentences to apply for jobs in certain professions and be a member of a company board. It did not affect individuals’ criminal record and is not a pardon.

Time for a change?
Kristín says the Ministry of Justice’s response does not come as a surprise. “I had received hints from the Prime Minister’s Office that this would be the result, so this doesn’t come as a surprise. It is simply so that the matter doesn’t fit into the laws currently in place,” she said.

She hasn’t yet decided whether she will push for law reform, or whether there’s a need for the creation of a so-called posthumous pardon. That law exists in other countries, such as the United Kingdom which granted Allan Turing a posthumous pardon in 2014. Turing had been sentenced for homosexuality in 1952. “I believe there’s a need for it. It’s a completely symbolic act but the symbolic dimension is really the basis of civilization. We need to have tools which can correct wrongdoings and other such actions for ourselves. So that we can say to ourselves: We are a civilized people. We learn from experience. We make up for our wrongdoings,” Kristín stated.

Read more about the history of executions in Iceland. The People’s History, an excerpt from an Iceland Review magazine article.

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