New Group to Fight for Sexual Assault Survivors’ Rights

Judge's gavel

A new organised interest group for sexual assault survivors was established in Iceland yesterday, RÚV reports. The group will fight for shortened case processing times for sexual offences, which can take over two years, as well as less lenient sentencing for convicted perpetrators. Guðný Bjarnadóttir, a survivor herself, decided to found the group after her own experience of the Icelandic justice system.

“The goal of the group is both to educate and to improve the legal status of victims,” Guðný explains. “As it stands today, sexual assault victims are just witnesses and the scene of the crime. It is very strange that such a case can be processed without the victim coming anywhere near it.” The Icelandic justice system assigns victims of sexual offences the status of witnesses in their own cases, affecting their access to case data, for example. “This is just one of the things that needs to be changed,” Guðný stated.

Guðný has criticised the Icelandic police for their handling of her own sexual offence case, which was eventually dropped. While she pressed charges for the offence three days after it occurred, the police did not call in the accused for questioning until five and a half months later. Then, another two years passed until her case was dismissed. “When you went and pressed charges, I found out that you’re just alone, there’s no one to look after you, through the legal system. And that is just unacceptable.”

No suspended sentences

Along with fighting to shorten procedure times, Guðný says the newly-founded group wants to see an end to suspended sentencing (probation) as a punishment for convicted perpetrators of sexual assault. Suspended sentencing, which is fairly common in the Icelandic justice system, means that although a perpetrator has been convicted and sentenced to serve time in prison, the sentence is suspended on the condition that the defendant does not commit another offence during that time period.

In a related case that made headlines in Iceland lately, a man was convicted of intimate partner violence but was not required to undergo any punishment or rehabilitation.

If you or someone you know is experiencing sexual abuse you can get help by calling 112 or through the 112 webchat. The emergency service in Iceland has a guide to the Icelandic justice system for victims of sexual offences in English.

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.

Sizeable Reduction in the Number of Open Sexual Assault Cases

Metropolitan Police

The number of open sexual offence cases within the sexual offence department of the Capital Area Police and the prosecutor’s office has decreased by 37%. The decrease follows increased funding to strengthen the investigation and prosecution of sexual offences.

Good progress over a brief period

In an announcement today, the Capital Area Police stated that increased funding and more staff had served to expedite the processing of sexual offences. As noted in the announcement, there were 401 open cases on September 1 of last year. That number has now been reduced to 235. At the same time, the office received several new cases; however, during this four-and-a-half month period, the police concluded the investigation of 239 cases.

In an interview with Fréttablaðið today, Halla Bergþóra Björnsdóttir, Chief of Police with the Capital Area Police, stated that it was pleasing to observe such good results in such a short time. “We have not stopped and will continue to look for ways to shorten the procedure time for sexual offences while at the same time ensuring the quality of investigations.”

Halla added that the increased budget had made a significant difference.

“It’s important that we’re measuring our results, which helps us identify bottlenecks. There are many people involved in the handling of these cases at the office. It is and has been our goal to further improve police services within this important field of policing.

Processes reviewed

The increased budget was spent on increasing the number of staff and altering working methods. The announcement notes that methods have been revised with the aim of expediting the investigation of cases. The cooperation between the sexual offence department, on the one hand, and the digital investigation department, on the other, was increased and improved in order to shorten the investigation time of electronic data related to sexual offences.

Furthermore, part of the budget was allocated to bolstering the police’s service department. Finally, a dashboard was introduced to monitor the progress of cases within the sexual offence department and the prosecutor’s office.