Human Rights Groups Criticise Draft Bill on Detention Centres

Guðrún hafsteinsdóttir

The Icelandic Red Cross, UNICEF Iceland, Save the Children Iceland, and the Icelandic Human Rights Centre strongly criticise a draft bill that would establish detention centres for asylum seekers in Iceland. In its current form, the bill allows for the detention of children for up to nine days and permits staff to “use force in the performance of their duties if considered necessary.” Minister of Justice Guðrún Hafsteinsdóttir plans to introduce the bill in Parliament by the end of this month.

Oppose the bill on human rights grounds

The draft bill was published in the government’s consultation portal last month, where members of the public, organisations, and interested parties can comment on it. A total of 19 comments were submitted through the platform, only one of which supported the bill. Several human rights organisations in Iceland have submitted formal criticism of the bill through the platform.

The Red Cross criticised the permissions the bill would grant police to detain individuals, asserting that they are unclear and subjective. The Icelandic Human Rights Centre echoed that criticism, asserting that the bill’s measures go further than the European Union’s Return Directive, a document outlining regulations on the deportation of asylum seekers.

Children’s rights at risk

Save the Children Iceland firmly opposed that the bill would permit the detention of children, which they say conflicts with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Detention in closed facilities has a negative impact on children’s development, the organisation stated, and children should not and cannot bear responsibility for their parents or relatives’ actions.

Tightened legislation on asylum seekers

The bill comes on the heels of other new legislation that left dozens of asylum seekers in Iceland homeless and without services last year. The legislation strips asylum seekers in the country of access to state housing, social support, and healthcare 30 days after their applications for asylum have been rejected. It was also strongly criticised by human rights organisations in Iceland.

Bill on Detention Centres for Asylum Seekers Published

Guðrún hafsteinsdóttir

A draft bill proposed by Iceland’s Justice Minister would permit authorities to hold asylum seekers in detention centres, including families and children. Setting up such detention centres could cost between ISK 420 and 600 million [$3.1 million-4.4 million, €2.8 million-4 million]. Humanitarian organisations have harshly criticised the establishment of such centres in Iceland.

The bill, which comes from Minister of Justice Guðrún Hafsteinsdóttir, was published in the government’s consultation portal last week, where members of the public, organisations, and interested parties can comment on it.

According to the summary on the consultation portal, the bill proposes permitting authorities to keep “foreign citizens who have to or may have to leave the country” in “a closed residence” when they have received a deportation order or “when a case that may lead to such a decision is being processed by the government.” According to the bill, the measure would “only be used as a last resort, when an adequate assessment has been carried out and it is clear that milder measures will not be effective.”

Children detained for up to nine days

The bill would permit authorities to detain children in such centres, if they are accompanied by a parent or guardian, but would not permit the detention of unaccompanied children. The detention of children would have to conform to “stricter requirements” than that of adults.

The bill proposes permitting the detention of children in such facilities for up to three days at a time and up to nine days in total. Adults could be detained in the centres for up to eight weeks.

If the bill is approved, the legislation would take effect at the beginning of 2026.

Restricted press access and use of force

While the bill distinguishes detention centres for asylum seekers from prisons, many of the restrictions proposed for such centres resemble that of traditional prisons, including separation between the sexes, restrictions on visits, and room searches. Staff would be permitted to “use force in the performance of their duties if considered necessary,” including physical restraints or “the use of appropriate means of force.”

The bill stipulates that the National Police Commissioner would decide whether to allow detained individuals to give interviews to media and that interviews “would not be permitted if they are contrary to the public interest.”

Tightened legislation on asylum seekers

The detention centre bill is the latest of several measures Iceland’s current government has taken to tighten regulations on asylum seekers. Last year, dozens of asylum seekers who were unable to leave the country for personal or political reasons were stripped of housing and services after new legislation took effect. The legislation strips asylum seekers in the country of access to state housing, social support, and healthcare 30 days after their applications for asylum have been rejected. The bill was first introduced in 2018 and received strong pushback from human rights organisations in Iceland, including the Red Cross, UNICEF, and Amnesty International. It was revised several times and passed following its fourth introduction to Parliament.

The detractors of the detention centre draft bill assert that it violates the United Nations Convention on Refugees, the European Convention of Human Rights, as well as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to which Iceland is a party.

Ambiguity on If, When, and How Ministers Will Be Shuffled

Jón Gunnarsson Alþingi

When Icleand’s current government took power in November 2021, Minister of Finance Bjarni Benediktsson stated that Guðrún Hafsteinsdóttir would take over the Ministry of Justice from Jón Gunnarsson within 18 months. More than 21 months later, however, Jón Gunnarsson remains in the post. Bjarni recently told RÚV that Guðrún would be appointed minister within the coming days, but not necessarily over the Ministry of Justice.

Bjarni Benediktsson is the chairman of the Independence Party, of which both Jón and Guðrún are members. The constituency council of South Iceland, Guðrún’s constituency, sent Bjarni a letter last week encouraging him to fulfill his promise of making their representative minister. “I am grateful to feel the broad support there is for me in the constituency and it shows that the South Iceland constituency has become very impatient,” Guðrún stated at the end of last week. She added, however, that she had not discussed the issue with Bjarni recently and that she had not heard anything about the potential ministerial assignment.

RÚV reported yesterday that some Independence Party members from Guðrún’s constituency, as well as others from East Iceland, had encouraged Bjarni to keep Jón in the cabinet.

Sweeping decisions marked by controversy

Jón’s tenure as Minister of Justice been marked by large-scale decisions regarding both law enforcement and immigration, many of them controversial. He unilaterally passed a regulation to arm Icelandic police with electroshock weapons, a move the Parliamentary Ombudsman later concluded was a breach of procedure. A bill on increased police powers introduced by Jón and since made law by Alþingi, was criticised by the Icelandic Bar Association for granting police the authority to surveil those who had not been suspected of criminal activity.

Under Jón’s direction, the Directorate of Immigration withheld data from Parliament, delaying the processing of citizenship applications. In April, the Minister promised additional tightening of asylum seeker regulations and introduced a bill that would increase financial incentives for asylum seekers who left Iceland voluntarily. Jón’s initial appointment was criticised by opposition MPs due to his record on women’s rights.

Obstructing Media Coverage of Deportation Was “Misunderstanding”

Jón Gunnarsson Minister of Justice

Minister of Justice Jón Gunnarsson says that the most likely explanation for Keflavík Airport staff obstructing journalists during a deportation last November was that they “misunderstood” the request made by the Police Commissioner’s Support Department. Isavia employees turned floodlight against a crowd of reporters, preventing them from filming or photographing the deportation of 15 people last November. The deportation sparked criticism and protests in Iceland and was later ruled illegal.

The Minister’s statement was part of an answer to Pirate Party MP Andrés Ingi Jónsson’s question: “By whom and on what grounds and basis, including legal sources, was a decision made to direct floodlights at media personnel that obstructed their work on the night of November 3, 2022 at Keflavík Airport?” The National Police Commissioner and Isavia issued a joint statement following the incident which said that the two parties regretted that police recommendations were not clear enough. The statement also underlined that police control the implementation of such events.

In his response to Andrés Ingi, the Minister of Justice stated that a review of the incidents implementation, there was no indication that police had specifically directed Isavia employees to obstruct the work of the media in any way. “[T]he most likely explanation for the incident is that there was a misunderstanding regarding the request of the support department to be able to operate without disturbance in the restricted area of the airport, in such a way that the request also included instructions that the movement of the media should be restricted.”

The Minister of Justice stated that work procedure has been review to prevent incidents like this from happening again.

Collectors Critical of Proposed Amendment to Weapons Act

guns

A new bill sponsored by the Minister of Justice has been criticised by firearms collectors, RÚV reports. The bill – an amendment to the weapons act – repeals an exemption on the importation of semi-automatic and automatic weapons even if said weapons are being imported as collectables.

Repealing an exemption on “collectable weapons”

On February 28, the Ministry of Justice posted a draft of an amendment to the weapons act on the government’s online consultation portal. The ministry referred to the bill as part of “a necessary revision to the law,” which, among other things, proposes to repeal an exemption on the importation of so-called “collectable weapons” that may include semi-automatic and automatic firearms.

A total of 45 comments – most of them authored by collectors, firearms enthusiasts, and marksmen – were received in regard to the proposed amendment (comments were closed last March); gun collectors complained that their ability to collect firearms was going to be severely limited if the amendment was passed.

Read More: What Kind of Gun Laws Exist in Iceland

“I think it goes without saying that the regulations need to be tightened and that acquiring these weapons is made more difficult – in addition to making increased demands of dealers – but to completely ban importation without any solid reasoning smacks of authoritarianism,” one commentator noted.

Guðjón Agnarsson, who operates the gunship Byssusmiðja Agnars alongside his father, told RÚV that he disproved of the bill: “It’s primarily the fact that the selection of remarkable and historic guns that can be imported to Iceland is being limited,” Guðjón told RÚV.

On the heels of the domestic terror plot

As previously noted, the importation of semi-automatic and automatic firearms will be prohibited if the amendment passes – even if said weapons are considered collectables. WWII enthusiasts would, therefore, no longer be able to import the famous Luger pistol or the Walther PPK.

“The Luger is one of the biggest and most popular collectable guns, and then, of course, the Walther PPK, the pistol with which Hitler shot himself. It would be nice to have one like that,” the aforementioned Guðjón Agnarsson told RÚV. He and his father have requested a meeting with the Minister of Justice in order to discuss the bill and convey the views of the collectors.

As noted by RÚV, the Minister of Justice’s bill was introduced following the so-called domestic terrorism case; the defendants in the case – accused, and later acquitted, of plotting a domestic terrorism attack in Iceland – had hoarded numerous weapons, including dozens of semi-automatic guns and 3D-printed components, alongside a considerable amount of ammunition.

The father of the National Police Commissioner – a well-known firearms dealer, who operates the website www.vopnasali.is – was entangled in the case.

Organised Crime, Sexual Offences Priority in New Action Plan

Jón Gunnarsson Minister of Justice

Extensive changes will be made to the handling of sexual offences and organised crime in Iceland, according to a new action plan introduced by the Ministry of Justice yesterday. Dozens of new police officers will be hired to meet increased demand. The National Police Commissioner told Vísir that there is “room for improvement in many areas.”

A four-fold plan of action

During a press conference held yesterday, Justice Minister Jón Gunnarsson, alongside the National Police Commissioner, the Commissioner of the Capital Area Police, and the District Prosecutor, unveiled a new comprehensive plan for law enforcement. This plan, which has been in development for over a year, consists of four key components: strengthening general law enforcement, improving police officer training, implementing a new action plan for sexual offences, and significantly enhancing measures against organised crime.

According to Vísir, the plan involves the creation of 80 new positions to bolster law enforcement efforts. These positions will be distributed as follows: 10 new police officers to be stationed throughout the country, 10 specialists to carry out various police duties, 10 additional border guards, 10 officers dedicated solely to combating organised crime, and 10 officers tasked with investigating and prosecuting sexual offences.

In discussing the plan, Jón Gunnarsson emphasised the importance of optimising human capital and improving coordination between police departments in order to ensure the most effective and efficient use of resources. “There are challenging times ahead of us,” he noted, “but we remain committed to getting the best possible outcomes for the people we serve.”

Room for improvement in many areas

National Police Commissioner Sigríður Björk Guðjónsdóttir expressed her satisfaction with the news of an increase in police officers. For years, she noted, the police force has been understaffed, which has severely impeded their ability to carry out their duties. “There is a lot of room for improvement in many areas,” she added.

Justice Minister Jón Gunnarsson echoed Sigríður’s sentiments, telling Vísir that while progress in some areas of law enforcement may be seen as early as this year, others will take more time. He emphasised the importance of educating and training police officers, but also highlighted the immediate results already achieved in cases of sexual offences and violence.

“We have taken the first steps towards building a stronger police force,” Jón Gunnarsson said, “which will ultimately make our citizens safer and better protected.”

A new action plan for sexual offences

A comprehensive plan to tackle sexual offences has also been put in place, including an increase in the number of people investigating and prosecuting such crimes, as well as a bolstering of the system itself. According to Jón, the results have been “unquestionable.”

“The fight will probably never end, but it starts with society becoming involved in the fight against violent and sexual crimes: that we show concern as opposed to looking the other way – and help and report if we become aware of something untoward.”

Over the past year, the Ministry of Justice, in collaboration with the police and other interested parties, launched a campaign to raise awareness about sexual offences. The aim of the campaign was to increase the number of reports. According to the National Police Commissioner, this campaign has proven successful:

“We are hoping that this does not mean an increase in the number of cases, but that the number of people reporting on these cases is increasing. With the increase in the number of reports, however, it means that more officers are needed so that the rate of cases can become acceptable,” Sigríður told Vísir.

The expediting of sexual-offence cases

As noted by Vísir, the processing time of sexual offences in Iceland has long been criticised, although that time has reportedly been shortened over recent months:

“We want, of course, to expedite these cases as much as possible, but we must not forget that technical research also needs to be done: phones need to be studied, biometrics, etc. There are all kinds of things that simply take time. This will never be something you handle in a few days, but we can do much better and plan to do much better,” Sigríður stated.

It is not only the investigative aspect of such crimes that has taken a long time, however, but court proceedings, as well. District prosecutor Ólafur Þór Hauksson stated that such a thing was not limited to sexual offence cases.

“We’ve been criticised, as far as other offences are concerned, for taking too long, but when we examine the processing of such cases abroad, we see that they also take quite a long time. There has, however, been a special effort to expedite the processing of sexual offences,” Ólafur remarked.

Organised crime on the rise

As far as organised crime is concerned, the response of law enforcement is being greatly bolstered. The district attorney will chair a special steering committee for the establishment of interdepartmental investigative teams. They are meant to analyse and prioritise organised-crime cases.

“The number of these cases has been increasing so that more work, more hands, has been required. And this increase that is being announced [in this plan] is primarily aimed at increasing the number of staff so that this can be done faster and that the system has more capacity,” Ólafur observed.

The Minister of Justice stated that big steps were being taken in dealing with recent, worrying trends:

“These are issues that extend beyond the borders, which show no respect for borders, and require a lot of expertise. We cooperate with foreign police authorities, and this requires a lot of cooperation between police departments, and even with the tax authorities, and other parties, within the country,” Jón observed.

Budget Constraints Force Sale of Nation’s Only Surveillance Aircraft

TF-SIF

The operation of the Coast Guard’s surveillance aircraft, TF-SIF, will be discontinued to meet budgetary constraints. The decision marks “a major step back” in the nation’s response and surveillance capacity, the Director General of the Coast Guard noted in a recent press release.

Operations proven difficult over the recent months

The operation of the Coast Guard’s surveillance aircraft, TF-SIF, will be discontinued this year in order to streamline the Coast Guard’s operational costs, a press release from the Coast Guard notes. The Ministry of Justice sent a letter to the Coast Guard earlier this week asking the Coast Guard to prepare the sale process:

“The operation of the Coast Guard has proven difficult in recent months due to enormous oil price increases; increased operations, including a larger and more powerful patrol vessel; as well as decreased participation from Frontex (The European Border and Coast Guard Agency) than expected.”

In April of last year, Georg Kr. Lárusson, Director General of the Coast Guard, informed the Ministry of Justice that the conditions for Coast Guard’s operational budget “no longer held” owing to the fact that the current budget had not followed more extensive operations and because of increases in the price of oil and other budgetary items.

As noted in the press release, funding for the Coast Guard was increased by ISK 600 million ($4.3 million / €3.9 million) in this year’s budget. This increase was expected to prove insufficient, in light of last year’s operating deficit, unless measures were taken that would “compromise the organisation’s statutory roles and response capacity.”

A major step back in the nation’s response and surveillance capacity

Georg Kr. Lárusson observed that the decision to sell TF-SIF represented “a major step back” in the nation’s response and surveillance capacity.

“When it became clear that the organisation would not receive further financial contributions, a conversation began with the Ministry of Justice concerning possible ways to get the Coast Guard’s finances back on track. There was no good option in the situation, and we are very disappointed to be forced to stop the operation of the surveillance aircraft, given that it is a specially equipped patrol, rescue, and medical transport plane and an important part of the country’s public safety chain.:

“Since 1955, the Coast Guard has operated an aircraft for surveillance and rescue operations along the coast of Iceland. The current decision is, therefore, a major setback in the nation’s response and monitoring capacity. TF-SIF is one of the most important links in the agency’s response chain, and with this difficult decision, a large gap is cut in the Coast Guard’s operations. We also consider the presence of the plane in this country to be an urgent national security issue, especially in light of the changing global political landscape” Georg was quoted as saying.

Justice Minister to Authorise the Use of Electroshock Weapons

Jón Gunnarsson Alþingi

The Minister of Justice has decided to authorise the use of electroshock weapons among the police. Clear rules will be set for their application and police officers will receive special training, RÚV reports.

An unfortunate but necessary measure

Over the past few months, the Ministry of Justice has reviewed the possibility of authorising the use of electroshock weapons among police authorities.

“We’ve reviewed the use of these weapons in neighbouring countries and have found that they have proven a great success,” Minister of Justice Jón Gunnarsson told RÚV this morning. “As a result of this review – which has been ongoing, as I’ve reported to the media – we’ve decided to implement their use in Iceland, especially considering that police departments and police officers have called for it.”

Jón noted that it was unfortunate that such a step “needed to be taken.” Given the state of affairs, however, it was imperative to ensure the safety of police officers, who have observed a growing threat from the use of weapons in Iceland. The frequency of accidents involving police officers has been on the rise.

Jón maintained that the use of electroshock weapons in neighbouring countries had significantly reduced the number of accidents involving police officers and suspects alike. In light of this, the Minister of Justice plans on amending regulations to authorise their use.

When asked about the hazards of such an amendment, Jón replied that every weapon came with its risk: “But we believe that that risk, when it comes to bodily harm, is not as great when compared to the resources that the police currently have at their disposal, such as batons.”

Jón added that strict and clear rules would be set regarding the use of electroshock weapons, noting that the latest models were equipped with cameras that would make their employment easy to monitor. Furthermore, Jón noted, experience had shown that it was often “enough that the weapons were available,” although they did not always need to be used, for there to be an effect. He expects that the police authorities could begin using these weapons as early as the middle of next year, although such a thing would depend on contractual bids and the training of police officers.

When asked if there was a consensus about this amendment within the government, Jón responded thusly: “It’s not been discussed formally. But I have, of course, discussed this repeatedly in the media over recent months and announced that preparations were underway. We’re at a turning point now.”

New Crime Bill Includes Upwards of 1 Billion ISK in Funding, Increased Police Powers

Dómsmálaráðherra Ríkisstjórn Alþingi Jón Gunarsson

Following Minister of Justice Jón Gunnarsson’s declaration of a “war on organised crime” after the recent knife attacks in a Reykjavík nightclub, Icelandic police are set to receive ISK 500 million (3.5 million USD, 3.3 million EUR) in funding for the establishment of special investigation teams.

See also: New Police Bill Approved by Cabinet

In an interview with RÚV, the minister stated: “It is absolutely necessary to take drastic measures to stop the development that is taking place in Icelandic society when it comes to organised crime.”

Included in the new crime bill is the ability for Icelandic police to now monitor individuals, not under concrete suspicion of having committed a crime, but merely for connections to known criminals. The police will now also be able to monitor places known to be associated with organised crime, in addition to writing “preventative search warrants.”

Such warrants will lower the standard for probable cause, allowing Icelandic police to issue search warrants on suspicion of criminal activity.

According to the budget proposals for the new crime legislation which was submitted to parliament this week, ISK 500 million are expected to go to Icelandic police to strengthen their response to organised crime. Much of the new funding is expected to go to the establishment of special investigation teams against organised crime.

See also: Minister of Justice to Declare War on Organised Crime

The budget committee has also proposed an additional ISK 750 million (5,3 million USD, 5 million EUR) to address “weaknesses in police operations” throughout the country. Of these new funds, ISK 650 million are to be allocated to general operations and training, with another ISK 50 million each going to equipment and investigations.

The budget committee stated that the new funds aim to “improve the quality of investigations, shortening case turnover, improving operations in rural areas, and improving equipment in the fields of digital and technical investigations.”

 

Minister of Justice to Declare War on Organised Crime

Jón Gunnarsson Alþingi

Minister of Justice Jón Gunnarsson has announced his intention to wage war against organised crime following the knife attacks in a Reykjavík club last week, which have been taken as signs of gang warfare.

On Thursday night, November 17, a group of masked and armed men stormed a Reykjavík nightclub, stabbing three men, who were since transported to the ER.

Of the nearly 30 men involved in the attack, already some 14 have been apprehended by the police. Two are suspected to have fled the country, with the police now searching for the remaining suspects.

Read more: Petrol Bombs and Threats of Retaliation Following Knife Attack

According to Minister Jón Gunnarsson, the incident reveals a problem with organised crime in a nation generally upheld for its security.

In response to the minister’s call for a “war on crime,” efforts are now being prepared to attack the root causes of organised criminality in Iceland.

The Minister has also expressed his desire to strengthen police powers, with what Jón Gunnarsson calls “preventative warrants,” allowing for “proactive investigation.” Such measures have been controversial in Alþingi, but Jón Gunnarsson has stated that his proposals would be “harmless.”

Such warrants would allow police to monitor individuals associated with known criminals and criminal activity, without themselves being found guilty of any crime.

The proposed measures would also add tasers to the police arsenal. Currently, Icelandic police officers only carry batons and pepper spray in the field.

In a statement to Vísir, the Minister said: “The steps we take may prove to be controversial, I have no doubt about that. Both of these new authorisations, for preventative warrants and weapons for the police, may be controversial, but we have to do it.”