Icelandic Police Bill to Boost Surveillance Powers

police station reykjavík

Icelandic police would be given increased powers of surveillance if a bill proposed by Justice Minister Guðrún Hafsteinsdóttir is passed. RÚV reports that Guðrún introduced the bill in Parliament yesterday. Opposition MP Arndís Anna Kristínardóttir believes the power the bill grants police is too extensive.

The aim of the bill is to strengthen the police’s ability to respond to organised crime and to give it the authority to monitor individuals who have not committed a crime. To have this authority, there must be a suspicion that an individual is connected to criminal organisations and could potentially commit a serious offence.

The bill would grant police the right to carry out such surveillance in public places, but not within private homes. The police would not need a court order to carry out such surveillance, although a special steering group that includes police officials would have to approve the measure.  The Minister of Justice stated that the bill would bring Icelandic legislation closer to legislation in other Nordic countries.

No independent supervision of police

Pirate Party MP Arndís Anna Kristínardóttir criticised the bill for not including any independent supervision of police and the use of this surveillance permission. “What is being done here is that the police are being given authority to monitor ordinary citizens who have done nothing wrong and even without any suspicion that the person has done anything wrong,” she stated. The Minister of Justice stated that the bill also includes increased supervision of police through establishing a monitoring group for police work and regular reports on the matter to Parliament.

Read More: Police Powers in Iceland

The Ministry of Justice, under the leadership of the Independence Party, has been pushing for increased police powers for some time. In 2022, then Minister of Justice Jón Gunnarsson introduced a crime bill with similar measures to the bill Guðrún Hafsteinsdóttir introduced yesterday. It was criticised by the Icelandic Bar Association as well as opposition MPs.

“There are, of course, some conditions in the bill, but it gives the police authority to monitor people’s movements without they themselves being under suspicion of criminal conduct, whether or not they have committed a crime or are preparing to commit a crime,” Sigurður Örn Hilmarsson, the chairman of the Icelandic Bar Association, stated at the time. He suggested that establishing a dedicated organisation such as an intelligence service would be a better way of investigating the most serious crimes, such as terrorism or organised crime.

Request Explanation of Weapons Purchased for Council of Europe Summit

The institute responsible for overseeing state purchases in Iceland wants the Police Commissioner to tally and justify the purchase of weapons and equipment for the Council of Europe Summit held in Iceland last month. Icelandic police spent ISK 185 million [$1.3 million, €1.2 million] from the state treasury on weapons for the summit and an additional ISK 151 million [$1.1 million, €1 million] on equipment such as helmets and vests. Morgunblaðið reported first.

Read More: Armed Police and Snipers in Reykjavík for Council of Europe Summit

Central Public Procurement (Ríkiskaup), the institution responsible for handling the purchasing of supplies and service for state institutions has asked the Police Commissioner to submit a formal report on the purchases of weapons and equipment made for the European Council Summit to the Publications Office of the European Union and justify the purchases and how they were made.

A press release from police states that the total cost of the summit will be published before the end of July, including salary costs of 650 Icelandic police officers, 96 foreign police officers, and 120 other staff members of police who took part in the event. Salary costs for the event have already been estimated at ISK 1.4 billion [$10.3 million, €9.3 million]. Despite requests, police have not made public the number of weapons that were purchased for the summit, but underlined in the press release that the weapons purchased were mostly Glock pistols and MP5 submachine guns, “not machine guns.”

The security around the summit, which took place on May 16 and 17 in Reykjavík’s Harpa Concert Hall and Conference Centre, was unlike anything ever before seen in Iceland. Large parts of the city centre were blocked off to the public and to motor vehicles and roads were closed temporarily for police-escorted heads of state travelling to and from the event.

Read More: A Matter of State

The press release from police emphasises the short period of time the institution had to prepare for the event and the relatively long time required to commission and deliver equipment to Iceland, implying that decisions on purchases needed to be made rapidly. Minister of Justice Jón Gunnarsson has stated that police will keep the weapons and equipment purchased for the event.

Minister of Justice: Iceland Not Exempt from Russian Espionage

Dómsmálaráðherra Ríkisstjórn Alþingi Jón Gunarsson

The Minister of Justice says there is “no reason to believe that the Russians, and other dictatorial nations, are not engaged in espionage in Iceland, as elsewhere,” RÚV reports. The minister’s bill on the increased powers of the police has been submitted to Parliament, although there seems to be little interest in the establishment of an Icelandic intelligence service.

No basis yet for the establishment of an Icelandic intelligence service

Yesterday, Runólfur Þórhallsson, Deputy Superintendent of the National Commissioner’s Analytical Department, stated that it was “very likely that Russia and other dictatorial countries are conducting illegal intelligence gathering here in Iceland – as elsewhere.”

Runólfur observed that the Nordic countries had established special security services to investigate and work against illegal information gathering and to carry out supervision; in order to conduct such supervision in Iceland, a similar service needed to be established.

Addressing the subject in an interview with RÚV, Minister of Justice Jón Gunnarsson stated that there was no reason to believe that Iceland was exempt from foreign espionage:

“There’s no reason to believe that we aren’t on the same boat as the Nordic countries in this regard, or when it comes to organised crime in general, for espionage is nothing more than an aspect of organised crime. On the other hand, however, there has, perhaps, not been a sound basis for establishing an intelligence service in Iceland akin to those of our neighbouring countries. This is why we’ve now been bolstering that arm of the police that deals with organised crime, and, thus, these matters being discussed, as best we can,” Jón Gunnarsson stated.

Childish to think that Iceland is exempt

Jón also stated that his bill on the increased powers of the police is being reviewed by Parliament. Current legal powers severely limit the police’s ability to counter espionage.

“This bill of mine has been somewhat controversial to some people, but it has progressed very modestly and is nothing close to what is customary with the intelligence services of our neighbouring countries. But, of course, it is just childish to think that we’re somehow exempt. We need to equip our police in such a way that they can at least work in full confidence and with the necessary authorisation required to collaborate with these neighbouring countries so as to inform them of these cases, and others, related to organised crime.”

When asked if he thought it was simply “a matter of time” that an intelligence service was established in Iceland, Jón remarked that we would “have to see how things developed.” Iceland relied on its allied nations, with whom it collaborated in matters of defence and within the political field – given that intelligent services in these nations were afforded a much greater authority than the police in Iceland.

Scant understanding for critical voices

“I’d like to reiterate that it is necessary for us to come to terms with the changes that have taken place around us in recent years. We must respond to these changes. The first step is to strengthen the police in this regard, that is, to afford our police the opportunity to be able to fully collaborate with the police of other countries.”

As RÚV notes, this is why Jón has a “scant understanding of the critical voices that have been heard regarding his bill.” In his opinion, it is crucial that these questions are dealt with in the spring. He added that his bill was meant to protect the security of the state and that espionage falls under that category.

Minister Sidestepped Procedure in Arming Police

Dómsmálaráðherra Ríkisstjórn Alþingi Jón Gunarsson

Iceland’s Minister of Justice Jón Gunnarsson should have consulted the cabinet on the decision to arm police with stun guns, according to the Parliamentary Ombudsman, RÚV reports. The change is a major political issue and should have been brought before the cabinet. Jón only announced the new regulation publicly after it had been passed.

Contrary to many other countries, ordinary police officers in Iceland do not carry firearms on their person. Police vehicles are, however, equipped with a gun. At the end of last year, the Minister of Justice signed an amendment to regulations, authorising Icelandic police to carry electroshock weapons. He announced the decision in a column submitted to local newspaper Morgunblaðið once it had already been implemented. The regulatory change was never discussed in the cabinet before it was made.

See Also: Icelandic Bar Association Concerned About Increased Police Surveillance Powers

In a letter sent to the Prime Minister two days ago, the Parliamentary Ombudsman stated that he believes Jón Gunnarsson was guilty of a lack of consultation when he changed the regulations. The Prime Minister’s reply to the letter stated that the decision to arm police with stun guns constituted a change in focus and that she had therefore specifically requested that the Minister of Justice explain the decision to the cabinet. The Minister of Justice did not comply with that request.

In a legal opinion published yesterday morning, the Parliamentary Ombudsman stated that Jón’s decision was not in accordance with good governance. Violations of formal rules not only serve to undermine trust, the ombudsman wrote, but also circumvent political consultation required by law and by the constitution.

Unclear whether Jón will continue as Minister of Justice

In an interview with RÚV, Jón Gunnarsson stated he disagreed with the ombudsman’s opinion and that he would not step down as Minister of Justice due to the issue. However, when the current government took power, Jón was only to hold the position of Minister of Justice for the first 18 months of the term, and was set to be replaced by fellow Independence Party MP Guðrún Hafsteinsdóttir.

In January, Guðrún told reporters she expected to take over the role this month, but Jón Gunnarson stated today that no one has yet asked him to step down from the position.

Icelandic Bar Association Concerned About Increased Police Surveillance Powers

Jón Gunnarsson Minister of Justice

A new bill that would increase Icelandic police’s powers to monitor people who are not suspected of crimes is concerning to the Chairman of the Icelandic Bar Association. The Association submitted plenty of comments on the Justice Minister’s amendment bill to the Police Act, RÚV reports. 

Decisions on surveillance would rest solely in police hands

A new bill introduced by Minister of Justice Jón Gunnarsson proposes giving police more power to gather information and carry out surveillance in order to reduce crime. The Bar Association’s comments on the bill criticised that the decision-making power for such activities would rest solely with police. “We believe that increased legal certainty consists in these actions requiring a court order,” stated Sigurður Örn Hilmarsson, the chairman of the Icelandic Bar Association.

Sigurður stated he is concerned that the proposed surveillance is quite general and quite extensive. “There are, of course, some conditions in the bill, but it give the police authority to monitor people’s movements without they themselves being under suspicion of criminal conduct, whether or not they have committed a crime or are preparing to commit a crime,” he stated.

When it comes to investigating the most serious crimes, such as terrorism or organised crime, Sigurður says such cases would be better placed in the hands of a dedicated organisation, such as an intelligence service, if such an organisation is deemed necessary.