Iceland Violated Right to Free Elections, ECHR Finds

Alþingishúsið

The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) found this morning that Iceland violated the right to free elections and the right to an effective remedy in a case that concerned the 2021 elections to Alþingi, Iceland’s Parliament. Iceland will have to pay the two applicants in the case €13,000 each in respect of non-pecuniary damages.

Recount irregularities

The case concerned irregularities in the recount of votes in the Northwest constituency that changed the allocation of seats in Alþingi after the 2021 elections. The applicants in the case, Guðmundur Gunnarsson of the Reform Party and Magnús Davíð Norðdahl of the Pirate Party, were both unsuccessful candidates in the constituency, the smallest of Iceland’s six constituencies.

“When the results came in, there was only a thin margin of votes in the Northwest and South constituencies, which could have affected the allocation of levelling seats,”  the ECHR’s press release reads. Levelling seats are distributed nationally between parties that receive at least 5% of the total vote. “A recount was ordered and it changed the standings in the Northwest constituency, leading to Mr Gunnarsson losing his levelling seat.”

Lacked impartiality safeguards

Certain irregularities were found to have taken place during the recount, including the unsecured and unsupervised storage of ballots between the first count and the recount.

The ECHR found that Alþingi’s handling of the applicants’ complaints “had lacked necessary impartiality safeguards and had been characterised by virtually unrestrained discretion”. The procedure meant that the applicants did not have an effective domestic remedy, which violates the European Convention on Human Rights.

Nine Women Sue Icelandic State for Dropping Sexual Assault Cases

women sue Icelandic state in sexual assault cases

Nine women have sued the Icelandic state before the European Court of Human Rights for violating their right to a fair trial. The women are all survivors of rape, domestic violence, and/or sexual harassment who reported the crimes to the police, only for the cases to be dropped by prosecutors. They are backed by 13 women’s organisations in Iceland, which state that the weak position of women who are victims of violent crime in Iceland is a systemic issue.

“The vast majority of women’s reports of violence to the police never go to trial,” a press release on the initiative states. “Figures have for ex. shown that only 17% of reported rape cases go to trial, while the rest are either dropped by the prosecutor or the police stop the investigation. Only 13% ended with a conviction. The intention of sending the charges to the Court of Human Rights is to draw attention to a systemic problem and have the Icelandic state answer for it on the international stage as to why the position of women who are victims of violent crime in Iceland is as weak as evidence shows.”

Point to Shortcomings in Judicial System

The nine women ranged from 17-42 years of age when they reported the crimes and most were reported to Capital Area Police. A thorough examination of their cases by lawyer Sigrún Ingibjörg Gísladóttir “revealed various shortcomings in the investigation and handling of cases within the judicial system,” the press release states, including “serious shortcomings” in police investigations.

In general, police took far too long investigating the cases, giving defendants months to prepare for questioning and to co-ordinate their statements or even leading to cases becoming statute-barred due to the length of time it took to summon the accused for questioning. In some of the cases, police failed to summon key witnesses for questioning or ignored witness reports in support of the victims. They also failed to value evidence available in the cases, including physical injuries, property damage, and psychologists’ certificates.

“Is justice for 13% of women enough?”

The 13 women’s organisations, including women’s shelters, counselling centres, the Icelandic Women’s Rights Association, and UN Women Iceland, held a joint press conference today to announce the initiative. The organisations also released a video last weekend featuring a visual explanation of how few sexual assault cases end with conviction in Iceland, asking: “Is justice for 13% of women enough?”

The 13 organisations also call for immediate changes to strengthen the position of women who are victims of violent crimes within the judicial system. These include involving them more directly in the criminal proceedings. This is “not least in order to strengthen their legal position vis-à-vis the state. Today, victims are only witnesses in their own case and therefore have little right to monitor the progress of the case or make comments.” The organisations also call for increased funding for the investigation and prosecution of cases involving sexual offences and intimate partner violence.

The press release acknowledges that the European Court of Human Rights has many cases on its agenda and “dismisses the vast majority of cases. Expectations of obtaining a substantial decision in favour of the applicants are therefore tempered.” The process is expected to take 5-6 years, meaning no results are expected in the near future.

Icelandic State Acknowledges Fair Trial Violations in Banking Collapse Convictions

The Icelandic state has acknowledged that five Icelanders who were sentenced in the aftermath of the 2008 banking collapse did not receive a fair trial. The European Court of Human Rights was set to rule on the five cases this morning but has struck the applications out of its list of cases as a result of friendly settlements reached between the Icelandic state and the defendants.

According to a press release from the ECHR, the Icelandic state will pay Sigurjón Þorvaldur Árnason, Ívar Guðjónsson, Sigurþór Charles Guðmundsson, Margrét Guðjónsdóttir and Karl Emil Wernersson €12,000 each in damages and cover any costs incurred. In light of the state’s acknowledgement, the applicants have the possibility of applying to reopen their cases.

The cases concern the applicants’ criminal convictions related to the 2008 financial crisis and its aftermath in Iceland. They were convicted for a variety of financial offences, including abuse of power and negligence of duties related to their high-level positions in the banking industry. The applications were lodged with the European Court of Human Rights on various dates in 2016 to 2018.

Relying on Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights (right to a fair trial), the applicants complained of the manner in which the Supreme Court of Iceland overturned or partially overturned their acquittals, or, in Sigurjón and Ívar’s cases, various aspects of the criminal proceedings against them.

Minister of Justice’s Court Appointments Were Illegal: Ruling Upheld by ECHR

Sigríður Andersen.

The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) has confirmed its ruling that Iceland violated Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights, meant to ensure individuals’ right to a fair trial, in the appointment of judges to the Court of Appeal. The Icelandic government had appealed the ruling last year, but it has now been unanimously upheld by all 17 of the ECHR’s Grand Chamber judges. This is the ECHR’s final ruling in the case and it cannot be appealed.

The verdict, published yesterday morning, emphasises the importance of the judiciary’s independence and asserts that former Minister of Justice Sigríður Andersen’s appointment of four judges to the court breached the procedure established by Icelandic law. Sigríður did not give sufficient reasoning for appointing different judges from those that had been selected by a selection committee.

Undermined Procedure and Failed to Heed Advice

Sigríður’s appointments “had raised serious fears of undue interference in the judiciary and had thus tainted the legitimacy of the whole procedure,” according to the ruling, “especially since the Minister belonged to one of the political parties composing the majority in the coalition government, by whose votes alone her proposal had been adopted in Parliament.”

“Lastly, the Minister’s failure to comply with the relevant rules was all the more serious as she had been reminded of her legal obligations on a number of occasions by the legal advisers in her own Ministry, by the Chairman of the Evaluation Committee and by the ad hoc Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Justice,” the ruling continues.

Ruling Not Legally Binding, Says Current Minister of Justice

Iceland’s current Minister of Justice Áslaug Arna Sigurbjörnsdóttir stated that the ECHR’s ruling is not legally binding and it is not necessary for Icelandic authorities to respond to it in any way. According to Áslaug, the appointments to the Appeal Court were legal according to Icelandic law. The ruling will be taken seriously but it is unlikely that the case will be reopened, she stated.

A Brief Overview

Iceland’s Court of Appeals (Landsréttur) was established on January 1, 2018, as a new mid-tier court between district courts and the Supreme Court of Iceland. Minister of Justice Sigríður Á. Andersen received heavy criticism from opposition MPs for failing to follow the recommendations of a selection committee in her nominations of judges to the new court. In March 2018, opposition MPs put forth a motion of no-confidence against the minister, which was voted down by a margin of four votes.

The four aspiring Court of Appeals judges whose nominations were passed over by the minister have all sued the state for compensation and damages. The Supreme Court has ruled two of them be compensated ISK 700,000 ($6,800/€5,600) but denied their claim to liability for damages.

On March 12, 2019 the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the appointments overseen by Sigríður constituted a violation of Article 6 Section 1 (right to a tribunal established by law) of the European Convention on Human Rights. Sigríður resigned as Minister of Justice the following day. On September 9, 2019 the Grand Chamber Panel accepted the Icelandic government’s request that the case be referred to the ECHR’s Grand Chamber that has now issued its ruling, discussed above.

Case Could Set a Precedent

It is quite rare for the European Court of Human to accept requests for appeals to its Grand Chamber: RÚV reports that just over 5% of such requests have been approved. The fact this case concerning Iceland’s Appeal Court was accepted suggests it is considered an important case that could set a precedent for others in the future.

European Court of Human Rights Backs Icelandic Court in Hate Speech Case

European Court of Human Rights

The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) rejected a complaint from Carl Jóhann Lilliendahl, who was convicted for homophobic hate speech by the Supreme Court of Iceland. Carl Jóhann made homophobic comments in response to an online article in April 2015 and was eventually fined ISK 100,000 (around €800 at the time). The ECHR unanimously declared Carl Jóhann’s application inadmissible.

Comments Ruled “Serious, Severely Hurtful, and Prejudicial”

In April 2015, the local authorities of Hafnarfjörður, Southwest Iceland, approved a proposal to strengthen education in elementary and secondary schools on lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender matters in co-operation with the National Queer Association (Samtökin ‘78). The decision led to substantial public discussion which Carl Jóhann became involved in. The case concerns comments he wrote in response to an online article on the issue, expressing his disgust and using derogatory words for homosexuality, namely kynvilla (sexual deviation) and kynvillingar (sexual deviants).

Samtökin ‘78 reported Carl’s comments to the police. Following an investigation, he was indicted in November 2016 under Article 233 (a) of the General Penal Code which penalises publicly mocking, defaming, denigrating or threatening a person or group of persons for certain characteristics, including their sexual orientation or gender identity. Though he was acquitted at first instance, in December 2017, the Supreme Court overturned the court’s judgment and convicted him, fining him ISK 100,000.

The Supreme Court found that the applicant’s comments were “serious, severely hurtful and prejudicial,” and weighing up the competing rights at play in the case, ruled that it was justified and necessary to curb the applicant’s freedom of expression in order to counteract prejudice, hatred and contempt and protect the rights of social groups which have historically been subjected to discrimination.

Argued Freedom of Expression Was Breached

Carl Jóhann lodged a complaint with the ECHR alleging that the Supreme Court’s conviction had breached his freedom of expression. The ECHR has now rejected the complaint, finding, like the Supreme Court of Iceland, “that the comments had promoted intolerance and hatred of homosexuals,” according to a press release from the Court. The release goes on to say that, although the comments did not amount to the “gravest” form of hate speech as it was not immediately clear that they had aimed at inciting violence, they fell under the court’s definition of “less grave” hate speech, which the court has previously held that states were allowed to restrict.

The ECHR found that the Supreme Court of Iceland “had extensively weighed the competing interests at stake, namely the applicant’s right to freedom of expression against the rights of homosexual persons to private life. The Court therefore found that the applicant’s complaint […] was manifestly ill-founded and rejected it as inadmissible.”

Icelander Róbert Spano Elected President of European Court of Human Rights

The European Court of Human Rights elected Icelander Róbert Ragnar Spano as its new President yesterday. He will take office on May 18, 2020, succeeding Linos-Alexandre Sicilianos, from Greece. At 47, Róbert is the youngest president in the 61-year history of the European Court of Human Rights.

Róbert was born in Reykjavík, Iceland in 1972, and studied law at the University of Iceland before completing a Magister Juris degree in European and Comparative Law at the University of Oxford. Róbert served as a legal advisor and deputy to the Parliamentary Ombudsman in Iceland and taught at the University of Iceland’s Faculty of Law, where he served as Dean from 2010-2013.

Róbert has been a judge of the European Court of Human Rights since November 2013 and Vice President of the Court since May 5, 2019. He speaks five languages: Icelandic, English, Italian, French, and Danish.

Icelandic Court of Appeal Case before ECHR’s Grand Chamber

Sigríður Andersen.

The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) held a Grand Chamber hearing in the case of Guðmundur Andri Ástráðsson v. Iceland today. The case concerns the former’s allegation that the new Icelandic Court of Appeal (Landsréttur), which upheld his conviction in April 2018, was not established by law, having regard to irregularities in the appointment of one of the judges sitting on the bench; in 2017, then Minister of Justice Sigríður Andersen oversaw the appointment of four judges to the Court who were not on a list of 15 candidates initially selected by an evaluation committee.

In Brief

As noted in a press release from the Grand Chamber this morning, in 2017, Guðmundur Andri Ástráðsson was convicted of driving without a valid licence and of being under the influence of narcotics. He appealed the decision to the new Court of Appeal (established in January 2018). Judge Arnfríður Einarsdóttir was one of the judges assigned to Guðmundur’s case. Arguing that there had been irregularities in the procedure for her appointment, Guðmundur requested that she withdraw. His motion was rejected.

Guðmundur appealed the case to the Supreme Court in April 2018, but the court dismissed his appeal a month later, finding that despite flaws in the procedure, there was not a sufficient reason to doubt that Guðmundur had had a fair trial before independent and impartial judges. On May 31, Guðmundur appealed the decision to the European Court of Human Rights.

In its Chamber judgment on March 12, 2019, the ECHR held (by five votes to two) that there had been a violation of Article 6 section 1 (right to a tribunal established by law) of the European Convention on Human Rights. The Chamber found that the process by which Arnfríður Einarsdóttir had been appointed to the Icelandic Court of Appeal had amounted to a flagrant breach of the applicable domestic rules: “It had been to the detriment of the confidence that the judiciary in a democratic society must inspire in the public and had contravened the very essence of the principle that a tribunal must be established by law.”

On September 9, 2019 the Grand Chamber Panel accepted the government’s request that the case be referred to the Grand Chamber. That hearing began this morning at 9.15 am and concluded at 11.45 am. Many Icelanders were in attendance, among them Sigríður Andersen, former Minister of Justice (who resigned following the ECHR ruling last year), Jón Finnbjörnssn (one of the judges on the Icelandic Court of Appeal on hiatus following the ECHR verdict), and parliamentarian Helga Vala Helgadóttir.

State of Paralysis

In an opening statement this morning, State’s Attorney Fanney Rós Þorsteinsdóttir said that the Icelandic Court of Appeal could no longer endure a “state of paralysis.” Arguing on behalf of the Government, Fanney stated that the ECHR should, based on the facts, conclude that the state of paralysis should be resolved: the Icelandic government had not violated the rights of Guðmundur Á. Ástráðsson when Icelandic Court of Appeal judge Arnfríður Einarsdóttir upheld his conviction.

European Human Rights Court Takes on Icelandic Gambling Case

Gambling addiction

The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) has decided to take on Guðlaugur Jakob Karlsson’s case against the Icelandic state, Morgunblaðið reports. Guðlaugur says the Icelandic state is breaking the law by allowing the operating of slot machines, which led him to become addicted to gambling, causing him financial and emotional harm.

The case is made on the grounds that the licences for slot machine operation issued by the government are contrary to Article 183 of the Penal Code, which prohibits gambling. Guðlaugur is demanding ISK 76,800,000 ($623,000/€565,000) from the state in damages, in addition to the cost of legal expenses. His lawyer Þórður Sveinsson says the case is on the ECHR’s agenda, though it is not yet known when it will be processed.

Guðlaugur initially charged the Icelandic state for damages in 2016. The Reykjavík District Court dismissed the case in October of 2017. The ruling was confirmed by the Court of Appeal in October 2018. Guðlaugur then applied to the Supreme Court of Iceland for right of appeal, but his application was rejected.

Þórður says the case raises various questions about the legislation concerning gambling in Iceland. “Slot machines are allowed, which are defined as the most extreme form of gambling. And then people are charged for inviting others to play roulette and poker for money,” he stated.

Iceland Review covered Iceland’s gambling regulations in a recent issue.

Too Few Judges on Court of Appeal

Judge's gavel

Iceland’s Court of Appeal has been operating with 13 judges as opposed to its mandated 15 for months, Fréttablaðið reports. In March of this year, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled four of the Court’s judges had been appointed illegally, and their presence impeded individuals’ right to a fair trial. The lack of judges has led to a backlog of cases at the Court.

Read more: ECHR Rules Appeals Court Appointments Illegal

The same month the ECHR published its ruling, the Judicial Administration proposed temporarily increasing the number of judges in the Court of Appeal in order to address the problem, but the Ministry of Justice has yet to decide on the matter. Benedikt Bogason, chairman of the Judicial Administration’s board, wonders at the length of time the Ministry has been silent on the proposal.

The four judges whom the ruling concerned are on temporary leave. Two of their positions have been filled by temporary replacements, but the other two are empty. What’s more, the replacement judges’ contracts run out at the end of the year. “Then the number of judges could go down again to 11,” Benedikt stated.

While temporarily increasing the number of judges on the Court of Appeal could save money and help cases proceed faster, it would require new legislation, and lawyers and members of government are not exactly in agreement over how the appointment should be carried out.

When asked about the proposal, Minister of Justice Áslaug Arna Sigurbjörnsdóttir stated that a decision had not been made on whether the number of judges would be increased.

Investigate Supreme Court Bias in Banking Collapse

European Court of Human Rights

The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) will discuss the shareholdings of two Icelandic supreme court justices – specifically whether their losses in the 2008 banking collapse influenced their rulings on bankers. RÚV reports that Ólafur Ólafsson, one of the main owners of now-defunct Kaupþing bank, has sued justices Markús Sigurbjörnsson and Árni Kolbeinsson who ruled in the infamous Al-Thani case in which Ólafur was convicted of market abuse.

Big losses, heavy convictions

The Al-Thani case was one of the most extensive criminal cases in Iceland. The convictions received by the four defendants are also the most heavy ever given for financial crime. In the case, Ólafur and three other executives of Kaupþing were convicted of market abuse for falsifying transactions to keep stock prices high at the bank.

The defendants previously appealed the case to the ECHR, which concluded that Justice Árni Kolbeinsson was not impartial in his ruling due to his son’s work for Kaupþing. Ólafur’s current complaint concerns the two justices’ shareholdings before the banking collapse, which disappeared when Kaupþing declared bankruptcy in 2008.

The ECHR sent a letter to all parties involved in the case earlier this month. In the letter, the Icelandic state is requested to try and reach an agreement with Ólafur. If an agreement is not reached by December 2, the ECHR will continue its deliberations on the case and begin more substantive proceedings.