Judge Wins Court Case Over Pay Dispute

Judge's gavel

Iceland’s Supreme Court ruled Friday that authorities had been in the wrong when they lowered the pay of judges last year and demanded repayment of allegedly overpaid salary. All of Iceland’s judges had to recuse themselves as the dispute made its way through the court system.

The dispute began when authorities reached out to 260 civil servants, officials, and elected representatives last year, RÚV reports. They were told that they’d been overpaid due to the wrong index being used in salary calculations and that this would need to be rectified with a repayment to the Icelandic state. Among those affected were the judges of Iceland’s eight District Courts, the lowest tier of the three-tier court system.

All of Iceland’s judges recused themselves

One of the District Court judges, Ástríður Grímsdóttir, sued the Icelandic state. As the outcome of the case would affect judges’ pay, all judges in Iceland had to recuse themselves and alternate judges were brought in.

Ástríður won her case in District Court this spring, but the state appealed. Due to the precedent that the ruling would set, the state asked that the case would go directly to the highest tier Supreme Court, bypassing the middle tier, the Court of Appeal.

The ruling Friday by the alternate judges of the Supreme Court confirmed the District Court ruling. The state was ruled to have been in the wrong when repayments of ISK 550,000 [$4,000, €3,700] were demanded from each judge. A two percent pay decrease for judges was also blocked.

Former Minister Jón Baldvin Sentenced in Sexual Harassment Case

Jón Baldvin Hannibalsson

Jón Baldvin Hannibalsson, former government minister and diplomat, has received a suspended sentence of two months’ imprisonment in a sexual harassment case related to an incident that took place at his home in Granada, Spain in 2018, Vísir reports. The Landsréttur Court of Appeals also ordered him to pay all court and appeal costs related to the case. Jón Baldvin’s defense attorney has said that an application will be made to the Supreme Court requesting the right to appeal the judgement.

An acquittal

The sexual harassment charges were first brought against Jón Baldvin in 2019, when Carmen Jóhannsdóttir accused him of having groped her buttocks during a dinner party in Granada the year before.

Resolution on the case was long delayed, however, in part because the Reykjavík District Court repeatedly dismissed it because the incident took place in Spain and was therefore not, the court contended, under its jurisdiction. The Court of Appeals overturned this dismissal on technical grounds: over four weeks had passed between the oral presentation of the call to stop the case and the court’s decision to throw the case out. As such, the District Court was forced to reopen the case.

Competing witness testimony also came into play. Carmen’s mother, Laufey Ósk Arnorsdóttir, was also in attendance at the party in 2018 and testified that she witnessed Jón Baldvin groping her daughter. The District Court rejected Laufey’s testimony, saying it did not correspond to Carmen’s version of events. Instead, it accepted the testimony of Jón Baldvin’s wife Bryndís Schram and a neighbor, who corroborated his version of events. The Reykjavík District Court finally ruled on the case in August 2021 and Jón Baldvin was acquitted of the charges.

A conviction

The case was then taken up again by the Court of Appeals, with the District Attorney seeking a suspended sentence of two to three months for Jón Baldvin. Carmen Jóhannsdóttir also sought damages totaling ISK one million [$7,086; €6,725]. Carmen’s claim for damages was rejected, but the Court of Appeals granted the DA’s suspended sentence of two months.

In its decision, the Court of Appeals stated that Carmen’s account of the incident was credible, and was, in fact, supported by that of her mother. It was the Court’s opinion that these testimonies outweighed Jón Baldvin’s denial.

A long history of accusations

Jón Baldvin Hannibalsson was an MP for the Social Democratic Party, serving as Minister of Finance from 1987 to 1988 and Foreign Affairs Minister from 1988 to 1995. Following his time in parliament, he served as a diplomat, first to the US and Mexico from 1998 to 2002, and then to the Baltics from 2002 to 2005.

He has faced repeated accusations of sexual harassment and impropriety throughout his career, dating all the way back to 1967 when he was a teacher at an elementary school. In 2012, it was revealed that Jón Baldvin had sent his wife’s niece Guðrún Harðardóttir sexually explicit letters starting when she was 14 years old. Jón Baldvin denied that he sexually harassed Guðrún, but apologised for what he called a “lapse of judgement” in initiating the correspondence. Guðrún attempted to press charges against Jón Baldvin, but police dropped the case.

See Also: Former Minister Accused of Sexual Harassment Over 50-Year Period

In 2013, Jón Baldvin was invited to be a guest lecturer at the University of Iceland. When objections ensued, the university withdrew the invitation. Jón Baldvin protested the decision and threatened to take legal action, upon which the university agreed to pay him ISK 500,000 [$3,542; €3,361] in compensation and publicly apologised for how they handled the matter.

In 2019, Stundin published interviews with four women, including Carmen Jóhannsdóttir, in which each described incidents of sexual harassment by Jón Baldvin. A Facebook group called #metoo Jón Baldvin Hannibalsson was formed around the same time, and at least 12 women used the platform to share accounts of sexual harassment at the hands of the former politician.

In the face of all these incidents, however, Jón Baldvin has maintained his utmost innocence. He called Carmen’s charge “pure fabrication” and stated it was part of “a coordinated attack on my reputation.”

‘It hasn’t been an easy journey, but today, it all became worth it’

Carmen was abroad at the time that the Court of Appeals published its decision, but she spoke to reporters after she’d had some time to process the news. “This is very much a cause for celebration,” she said. “I know it’s not a heavy sentence, but it’s just the fact that he’s been sentenced at all. I didn’t expect it, to be perfectly honest, but I’m really happy about it.”

“It’s been a long process and of course, there’s already been one ruling on it. But I have to say that I’m really happy about this. I’m happy about this victory—not just for me, but also for everyone who’s been subjected to abuse at the hands of Jón Baldvin.”

“Hopefully, this will set a precedent for other judges and lawyers,” continued Carmen. “And also just for people who haven’t had the desire or ability to claim their rights—that it’s worth it, even if it’s hard. I’ll absolutely admit that it hasn’t been an easy journey, but today, it all became worth it.”

Supreme Court Takes Up Slayer Suit Against Secret Solstice Festival

slayer lawsuit secret solstice iceland

Iceland’s Supreme Court has accepted an appeal by American thrash metal band Slayer against the organisers of the Secret Solstice festival.

Slayer performed at the 2018 festival and allege that they were never paid for their performance.

In a 2020 ruling, organisers of Secret Solstice were ordered by a Reykjavík district court to pay a sum of ISK 20 million (USD 138,900; EUR 143,800) to Slayer. Despite some ambiguity in communications regarding the payment, it was determined that Slayer should be compensated with the personal assets of the organisers.

Read more: Former Secret Solstice Organiser Bankrupt

However, earlier this year, the decision was revisited by the National Court, which then acquitted Live Events, the former organisers.

With the former organisers in bankruptcy, representatives from Slayer have claimed that assets were misused during the bankruptcy, and that there is precedent for payment obligation in such cases. After the festival’s bankruptcy, it was sold to several different legal entities. Confusion arose after public statements by one of the directors of Live Events, which claimed that all debts would be settled. Now, the Supreme Court of Iceland is taking up the case.

Central to the case is whether the statement in question was general in nature, or whether it constituted a binding contract.

The Supreme Court has taken up the case partly because it believes that the case will have broader importance in setting precedent in cases of payment obligation with multiple debtors.

Court Denies Erla’s Request for Retrial

Guðmundur og Geirfinnur case Supreme court

In a decision handed down September 14, Erla Bolladóttir’s request for a retrial was denied. The court cited a lack of new developments in the case, and ordered Erla to pay some ISK 3 million in fees.

Convicted in 1980 in the notorious Guðmundur and Geirfinnur case, Erla has since fought for a retrial. Now, with her appeal rejected, she suggested at a press conference held Wednesday, September 21, that she may appeal to the European Court of Human Rights.

Read more: States Opposes Compensation in Guðmundur and Geirfinnur Case

“The condition for applying to the Human Rights Court is that you have exhausted all domestic means,” Erla said at the press conference. “This judgment of the court is the final word in this country, so it is definitely something I will consider.”

Erla also stated that she intended to pursue her fight for justice, saying that she was recently diagnosed with cancer: “Does anyone think I’m going to spend my last days lying to the world about this injustice?”

Read more: Compensation Awarded in Guðmundur and Geirfinnur Case

The Guðmundur and Geirfinnur case is one of the most controversial and notorious criminal cases in Iceland’s modern history, revolving around the disappearance of two young men, Guðmundur and Geirfinnur, in 1974. Six individuals were ultimately convicted in connection to the case, but the extreme interrogation measures taken by the police, including sleep deprivation, drugs, and water torture, have caused many to question the legitimacy of the confessions. The convicts have previously stated that they signed the confessions in order to put an end to their solitary confinements, which, in Erla’s case, was for 242 days.

The case has been described as one of the most serious miscarriages of justice in Europe by foreign media.

In 2018, a retrial of the case led to five acquittals, though this notably did not apply to Erla who was also charged with perjury in the case.

At the time of writing, around 1,100 have signed a petition in support of Erla’s retrial.

 

Five Seafood Companies Withdraw From Lawsuit Against Icelandic State

Fishing Harbour

Five seafood companies have decided to withdraw from a joint lawsuit against the Icelandic state due to a dispute over the allocation of mackerel quotas between 2011-2018, RÚV reports. Seven companies had decided to jointly sue the state, demanding over ISK 10 billion ($69.6 million/€63.9 million) in compensation. A statement from the five companies says the decision was made due to the impact COVID-19 will have on the Icelandic treasury.

Eskja, Gjörgur, Ísfélag Vestmannaeyja, Loðnuvinnslan, and Skinney-Þinganes are the five companies that have dropped out of the joint lawsuit. A statement from Supreme Court Attorney Sigurbjörn Magnússon on behalf of the five companies says the COVID-19 pandemic will have a profound effect on Iceland’s treasury and the entire Icelandic community.

“Widespread solidarity and mettle have characterised the community in the past weeks and months. Now everyone needs to work together,” the statement reads. “For this reason, the five undersigned fishing companies have decided to waive their claims against the Icelandic state.”

The seven companies (the final two being Vinnslustöðin and Huginn ehf.) filed the lawsuit last year, claiming that the state’s mackerel quota distribution between 2011-2018 was based on incorrect information and led to losses for the companies. Two Supreme Court rulings in 2018 recognised the state’s liability for damages Ísfélag Vestmannaeyja and Huginn ehf. believed to have incurred due to how the quota was distributed between 2011-2014.

Minister of Finance Bjarni Benediktsson stated earlier this week that he was optimistic the state would win the case, but in the unlikely situation that it did not, the damages would not be paid using tax money, rather would be financed via the fishing industry itself.

Compensation Should Be Higher for Guðmundur and Geirfinnur Plaintiffs

Ragnar Aðalsteinsson, defense lawyer for Guðjón Skarphéðinsson, one of the defendants in the Guðmundur and Geirfinnur retrial, says that the compensation being offered to his client is too low in comparison with that which has been offered in similar cases.

Guðjón was one of five defendants in a retrial of one of the most notorious criminal cases in Icelandic history. In September, Guðjón and Sævar Cieselski, Tryggvi Rúnar Leifsson, Kristján Viðar Júlíusson, and Albert Klahn Skaftason were acquitted of the murders of Guðmundur Einarsson and Geirfinnur Einarsson in 1974, for which they were sentenced in 1980.

The case revolved around the disappearance of two men, Guðmundur and Geirfinnur, in 1974. Six people were ultimately convicted of the murders of these two men based on confessions extracted by members of the police force. These confessions are believed to be faulty due to extreme length and intensity of the interrogations. Furthermore, police hever recovered the bodies of the missing men, were not able to confirm the location of the crime scene, and had no actual witnesses or forensic evidence. Murders are few and far between in Iceland and this was particularly true in the 70s. There was tremendous pressure on police authorities to identify and sentence the culprits. It is believed that this pressure led to the extreme methods performed in order to extract confessions. Sævar Ciesielski, who had fought for years to have the case reopened and retried, died in 2011. (Read more about the case here and here.)

Following the acquittal, the Prime Minister issued a formal apology to the five wrongfully convicted defendants and appointed a working group to lead negotiations regarding compensation for the defendants and their families. Seven months have passed since then, but no formal compensation offer has yet been made.

Defense lawyer Ragnar Aðalsteinsson says that the government has informally proposed a ceiling of ISK 600 million [$62.3 million; €55.5] in compensation. In 1983, four suspects who were imprisoned for 105 days in connection with the murders were paid ISK 56 million [$459,921; €409,345] for every day they were wrongfully held in custody in compensation. This is equivalent to ISK 535 million [$4.39 million; €3.91 million] today. The current offer, says Ragnar, is roughly a tenth of that offer “…based on the same charges, in the same prison, at the same time.” Moreover, he says, the current compensation offer does not account for his client’s loss of employment and income at the time.

The defendants were held for up to two years in solitary confinement in addition to the prison terms they were sentenced to. Ragnar says that they should be compensated for at least ISK 390 million [$3.2 million; €2.85] for the two years they spent in solitary confinement.

Ragnar says that the significance of awarding substantial damages goes beyond simply compensating the defendants for their monetary losses at the time of their imprisonment. “High compensation has a range of effects. It is part of the pardon, but also acts as a restraint on police and judicial authorities in the future, to be more careful than they have been in this case, in the hope that something like this won’t repeat itself in the coming years and decades.”

Supreme Court Rules in Favour of Press

Iceland’s Supreme Court has ruled entirely in favour of news outlet Stundin and media company Reykjavík Media in a media injunction case that has been ongoing since October 2017. Kjarninn reports that on Friday, the Supreme Court rejected all claims made by Glitnir HoldCo Ltd, the corporation that oversees the remaining assets of Glitnir bank. The first of these claims was that the journalists involved in the case should be legally compelled to share evidence that might have bearing on it, even if they might, in the course of their testimony, inadvertently reveal information about confidential sources. The company’s secondary claim was that the information reported on by Stundin and Reykjavík Media—information that was obtained from leaked bank documents—should be protected by bank confidentiality.

Friday’s ruling did not address the validity of the original injunction, which was struck down by the Court of Appeals, or Landsréttur, in October 2018. At the time, Landsréttur ruled that Stundin did not have to give up the Glitnir files. It also found that further reporting from the files couldn’t be forbidden. In its ruling, Landsréttur stated that Stundin’s coverage had focused on the business dealings of then prime minister and current Minister of Finance Bjarni Benediktsson, as well as people connected to him, and that this information was undeniably important to the public, especially leading up to elections. It was Glitnir HoldCo Ltd’s contention that the files could be used to report on individuals’ financial affairs which were not matters of public import, a claim that Landsréttur rejected. In that Glitnir HoldCo Ltd appealed Landsréttur’s decision to the Supreme Court, however, the injunction has remained in place since.

Protection of sources is of the highest importance

When the Supreme Court agreed to take the case in November 2018, it did so with the understanding that it would not be reviewing the validity of the initial media injunction, but rather the validity of Glitnir HoldCo Ltd’s assertion that Stundin and Reykjavík Media should not be allowed to use the information found in the leaked files in their reportage and should turn the Glitnir files back over to the holding company. Glitnir HoldCo Ltd’s claims were based on their belief that the data in the files should be protected by bank confidentiality.

The Supreme Court rejected all of the company’s claims. The main of these was that both the District Court and Landsréttur were wrong not to compel three known witnesses, all journalists for the media outlets, to answer questions related to the existence, content, and custody of the leaked bank documents. The company maintained that the courts’ decision not to do this stripped it of its legitimate right to evidence—namely, how the documents were leaked to the media in the first place. The company claimed that being denied this evidence was grounds for automatic dismissal of the first District Court case.

The Supreme Court rejected this claim, stating that compelling the journalists to testify put their source(s) at risk, since there was a significant likeliness that during such testimony, journalists would inadvertently share the names of, or information about, their source(s). With its ruling, then, the Supreme Court determined that the importance of protecting sources takes precedence in such cases.

Public figures necessarily have less right to privacy

On the matter of bank confidentiality, the Supreme Court found it significant that the original injunction was levied on October 16, 2017—just 12 days before parliamentary elections—which made it all the more important that media coverage related to elected officials should not be any more restricted than was absolutely necessary. It noted, however, that the outlets’ coverage was primarily related to the former prime minister’s dealings with Glitnir bank in the lead up to the failure of the Icelandic banks in 2008 and that the tenor and focus of the coverage has largely been the same from the beginning, even after the injunction went into effect.

In its judgement, the Supreme Court noted that is generally understood that individuals involved in public offices have less claim to privacy and confidentiality than private citizens. The role of the media in a democratic society must be considered in such cases, it continued, as must the relevance of the topics and dealings that were under discussion in this instance. “In light of the enormous overall impact that the banking collapse had on Icelandic society, it’s only natural that a reckoning like this would be conducted in the media and the public discussion that usually follows,” read the judgement. The business dealings of former prime minister Bjarni Benediktsson fall within the purview of open public debate, concluded the Supreme Court. Moreover, the business dealings of people close to Bjarni are also open to public discussion, as they are “so interwoven with” those of Bjarni’s that “they should not be separated.”

Finally, the court found that prior to the injunction, all media coverage of parties whose connection to Bjarni Benediktsson was not clear “immediately” was focused on parties who were publicly prominent in the run-up to, and wake of, the 2008 banking collapse and who, therefore, enjoy less privacy and confidentiality than the average private citizen. This was further evidenced by the fact that the media outlets’ coverage of these parties and their part in the 2008 banking collapse has not needed to be adjusted in any meaningful way following the injunction.

The damage is “irreversible”

 Although today’s Supreme Court ruling was in the media’s favour, however, Stundin editors Ingibjörg Dögg Kjartansdóttir and Jón Trausti Reynisson and Reykjavík Media Editor-in-Chief Jóhannes Kr. Kristjánsson expressed dismay at the fact that although “Freedom Has Won,” in the end, the effect of the 522-day media injunction still had what they consider to be a seriously deleterious effect on public discourse. For one, it “…without a doubt, had a deterrent effect on people in our society who hold information or data that has significant relevance to the public, people who want to come to the media in the name of justice,” they wrote in a public statement on Facebook.  They continued by saying that the possible legal costs associated with losing a case like this are not enough to deter unlawful injunctions from being made about topics that are of vital public importance. Regardless of the outcome of the case, they concluded, “[t]he fact remains that there has been a violation of the public’s right to information and when you really think about it, the right to free elections.”

Ingibjörg Dögg repeated this sentiment in an interview with RÚV, wherein she said that although she and her publication felt a sense victory with the ruling, the entire situation remained “incredibly sad.” Given the relevance of the information that was being published had to the 2017 elections, the damage that this injunction did is irreversible.

Prison Logs Provide Vital Evidence in Guðmundur and Geirfinnur Retrial

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.”