Lawyers for three of the five defendants in the Guðmundur and Geirfinnur retrial made their cases to the Supreme Court on the second day of testimony, RÚV reports. Defense attorneys spoke on behalf of Kristján Viðar Viðarsson, Guðjón Skarphéðinsson, and Sævar Marínó Ciesielski. While presenting their defenses, the men’s attorneys referred to important new evidence—the prison log books from the time of their clients’ interrogation—which provided a clear picture of the abuses the defendants had to endure while in solitary confinement.
The infamous and highly contested case—called by one defense lawyer a “judicial scandal”— has long been attended by accusations of mismanagement, rampant abuse, and fabricated confessions. (For a detailed explanation of the case and its legacy, see the BBC investigatory article The Reykjavik Confessions.)
The case revolves around the disappearance of Guðmundur Einarsson in January 1974, followed by that of Geirfinnur Einarsson (no relation) in November of the same year. Police never recovered the bodies of either man and rumors and conspiracy theories long circulated as to what had happened to them. The defendant Sævar Ciesielski, who was known to police at the time and had been picked up along with his girlfriend (and mother of his eleven-month-old daughter) Erla Bolladóttir, for a petty crime in December 1975, was eventually implicated in the suspected murders of both of the disappeared men.
Sævar, Erla, and four of Sævar’s friends were also eventually charged with the murders: Guðjón Skarphéðinsson, Kristján Viðar Viðarsson Júlíusson, Tryggvi Rúnar Leifsson and Albert Klahn Skaptason. All of them received prison sentences of varying lengths, up to 17 years, and their convictions were largely based on confessions that were extracted from them during lengthy interrogations and after spending extremely long periods of time in solitary confinement and enduring serious abuse, even torture. During its remarks on Thursday, the defense also pointed out that confessions were not obtained from their clients until after a year spent in custody.
Prosecutor Davíð Þór Björgvinsson said that the defendants’ confessions had been the only real evidence in both investigations and that the convictions would not have been made without those confessions. One of the primary reasons that the case was allowed to be retried, however, was that the Ministry of Justice’s Rehearing Committee had determined that evidence had not been gathered according to proper procedure.
One of the defense’s primary points of contention is the length of time that their clients were held in isolation. Today, it’s thought that 15 days in solitary confinement can cause lasting harm to a person. Some of the defendants, however, were held for as much as two years in isolation. Erla, for instance, was isolated and kept away from her baby daughter for 105 days, during which she was interviewed 100 times—only three times in the presence of a lawyer. Tryggvi Rúnar Leifsson was kept in solitary confinement for a mind-boggling 655 days, during which time he “kept detailed diaries, to cling on to reality, to remind himself he was innocent.” These journals were smuggled out of the prison by a sympathetic priest. Three of them survived to the present day—hidden for safe-keeping by Tryggvi’s daughter—and, in addition to Guðjón’s journals, make up some of the evidence that allowed defense attorneys to secure a retrial.
In addition to these journals, the prison’s log books also provide vital insight into how authorities managed interrogations at the time of investigation. These were not referred to during the first trial and detail who came to the prison where the defendants were being held, when, and who they met with. There are, however, no transcripts showing what was said during these interrogations.
On Thursday, the defense also spoke on the harshness of their clients treatment in prison. Sævar, who police decided was the ringleader, was subjected to the worst of it. According to the prison log, on one occasion, all of the things in his cell were removed. The light switch in his cell was disconnected so that he could never turn off the light. He was also prevented from sleeping by police guards. He and the four other men were also routinely drugged while in custody.
The defense contended that both the criminal court and the Supreme Court committed offenses by ignoring evidence of the defendants’ innocence and ordering police not to pursue these lines of inquiry. The case represents a miscarriage of justice, said Guðjón’s lawyer Ragnar Aðalsteinsson, and it’s important that the court admit to its mistakes. Defense lawyers also pointed out that the case would not even be under review with the Rehearing Committee now except for the fact that Sævar Ciesielski, who died in 2011, fought for years to have it retried.
Following the day’s proceedings, Sævar and Erla Bolladóttir’s daughter Júlía said that in her opinion, an acquittal alone would not be sufficient. “I think getting this declaration of innocence would be the bare minimum because there were clearly very big mistakes made, significant violations, and it calls for something more than just an acquittal. But this is obviously in the hands of the Supreme Court and there’s nothing to do but wait for their ruling.”