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ANALYSIS: Government falls in shocking scandal involving one of Iceland's most notorious child abuse cases

By Staff

  • Last meeting of the government The government met for the last time on Monday. Photo/Vilhelm

Following wide outrage in Icelandic society after it was revealed yesterday that the Minister of the Interior had lied to Parliament and kept information from the public and that the Prime Minister had also kept information from the public, the junior coalition partner, the centrist Bright Future, has announced it will no longer support the government. The Prime Minister has yet to appear publicly.

Bright Future made the decision to withdraw from the coalition government at a meeting yesterday evening. The announcement was made shortly after midnight. At the heart of the story is fallout from a child abuse scandal which had ensnared the father of the Prime Minister, Benedikt Sveinsson. Mass protests have been announced in front of the house of parliament today afternoon at 16:00.

Two horrifying Child Abuse cases

Óttarr Proppé

Óttarr Proppé The leader of Bright Future announced that the party could not support the coalition government of Bjarni Benediktsson, after it was revealed Bjarni had kept information about the fact that his father had written a letter in support of the pardoning of a notorious child molester. Photo/Ernir

The reason Bright Future has withdrawn its support for the government is that yesterday the public learned that the father of the Prime Minister, Benedikt Sveinsson, one of the wealthiest men in Iceland, had written a letter on behalf of Hjalti Sigurjón Hauksson, the most notorious child molesters to be sentenced in Icelandic court, asking for his full pardon and that his criminal record to be expunged and "honor restored".

In Iceland criminals can apply for a full pardon five years after they have served their sentence. An applicant for pardon must present letters from two "respected and well known people" vouching for their changed and good character. The pardon application is approved by the Ministry of the Interior, then reviewed by a parliamentary committee and finally signed by the President of Iceland. 

The case of two of Iceland's most notorious child molesters who received a full pardon this summer has rattled Icelandic society. The Icelandic public and media have spent much of summer discussing the two cases and the horrifying world of violence and abuse they revealed.

Public suspects a cover-up
One of the two men, who has changed his named to Róbert Downey, had been a prominent attorney before he was sentenced. He had systematically groomed dozens of young girls in difficult social circumstances whom he had singled out as potential victims. The family of one of his victims launched a campaign to answer why this man had been granted a full pardon. This campaign then drew public attention to the pardoning of a second child molester. One of their demands was that it would be revealed who had written letters on behalf of Róbert Downey. 

The unwillingness of the government and the Minister of the Interior, as well as the majority of the Judiciary committee of Parliament to support these calls or just take them seriously, was interpreted by many as proof of a cover-up. Not least because the actions and statements of the parliamentary leaders of the Conservative party after the case became front page news alternated between fumbling and arrogance.  

A second cover-up

Bjarni Benediktsson, Benedikt Sveinsson

Bjarni Benediktsson (left) Benedikt Sveinsson (right) Photo/Vísir

This second man, Hjalti Sigurjón Hauksson, had raped and abused his adopted daughter for 12 years, from the age of 5 until the girl finally managed to escape and press charges. He was sentenced in 2004 to five and a half years in prison, which is one of the longest sentences ever handed down in sex abuse cases in Iceland. 

The details of the case are nothing short of horrifying. This summer the man was then granted a full pardon, despite the fact that there is no indication he has ever repented. His victim has revealed in interviews that the man has continued to harass her and her family, among other things by approaching her six year old daughter while she was on a field trip with her school. The man was working as a school bus driver at the time.

Yesterday it was revealed tha tone of the two people who had written letters on behalf of Hjalti Sigurjón was the father of the Prime Minister, Benedikt Sveinsson. Benedikt is a prominent businessman, one of the wealthiest people in Iceland, and widely considered to be one of the most powerful actors in the Conservative party.

The Minister of the Interior knew that Benedikt had written the latter on behalf of the child molester, and had told the Prime Minister, Bjarni Benediktsson, of this fact in June. Neither the Prime Minister, nor the Minister of the Interior, had ny legal obligation to keep the identity of the person who had written the letter secret. It was only after media had been granted access to the information, following an Freedom of Information request, that the information came forth.

A breach of trust

Sigríður Á Andersen

Sigríður Á Andersen The Minister of the Interior. Photo/Ernir

Many members of the public, commentators and members of the political opposition have argued that the failure to disclose the information is part of a cover-up by the leadership of the Conservative party, which was trying to shield the Prime Minister's family from the shame of its patriarch having vouched for a man who is widely seen as a monster.

The fact that the Prime Minister and the Minister of the Interior kept the information from Parliament and even from the junior members of the government coalition, the leadership and MPs of the liberal center-right Restoration and centrist Bright Future, is also seen as a serious breach of trust between Parliament and the two ministers.

Read more: Analysis: The clouds of the Panama Papers hang over new coalition government

Late last night the leadership of Bright Future decided that the breach of trust between the coalition partners meant the party could no longer support the government. The government, which has been one of the least popular in Icelandic political history, had been plagued by internal friction since it was formed in January of this year. 

Read more: Analysis: Despite a booming economy Icelandic government enjoys just 25% approval rating

Among the scandals which have plagued the government are a controversial sale of assets by state owned Landsbankinn to Benedikt Sveinsson, as well as lingering questions relating to his finances, as well as those of his son, the Prime Minister. Bjarni Benediktsson was one of the people who appeared in the Panama Papers, and companies with connections to his father and other family members have also been connected to off-shore tax havens. 

Read more: Cloud of Panama Papers: Prime Minister refuses to discuss tax-haven report with Parliament

Third time a conservative government resigns

Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson, Bessastaðir

Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson The disgraced former PM who resigned amid the Panama Papers scandal last year. Photo/Anton Brink

This is the second coalition government to fall amid a scandal in little more than a year. Last fall the coalition government of the conservative Independence Party and the socially conservative centrist Progressive Party resigned after then Prime Minister, Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson, was revealed to have large holdings in tax havens.

Read more: Interview with disgraced former PM over Panama Papers nominated for an Emmy award

This is also the third time in a row that a government of the conservative party resigns before the four year term is up. In 2009 the government of Geir H. Haarde resigned under pressure by protests over the fallout from the 2008 financial crash.

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