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Breivik trial: Norwegians rethink role of psychiatry in courts

The trial of Anders Behring Breivik for the worst peacetime atrocity in Norwegian history is set to begin tomorrow, with his mental health at the crux of the case.

By Correspondent / April 15, 2012

The courthouse in Oslo, Norwak, where Anders Behring Breivik will be tried.

Fabrizio Bensch/Reuters

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Oslo

In the first days after the twin terror attacks last year, Norway’s prime minister was quick to come out with a comforting message to the grieving nation. The country would respond to Anders Behring Breivik’s massacre with “more openness, more democracy,” said Jens Stoltenberg. This would not change Norwegian society. 

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Nine months later, the trial for the worst peacetime atrocity in Norwegian history is set to begin tomorrow, and the country is at a crossroad. 

Norwegians have had their confidence in the judicial system shaken after two conflicting psychiatric reports have come to the opposite conclusion on Breivik’s mental standing. The first from November deemed him paranoid schizophrenic and hence legally not punishable. The second, released last week, said he was not psychotic. 

Some of the questions now being raised: Are Norwegian courts putting too much weight on forensic psychiatrist reports in determining legal sanity? And are too many criminals being incorrectly diagnosed as psychotic?  

“It is clear to me that this case will weaken the position of forensic psychiatry in Norway,” says Nils Christie, a criminal law professor at the University of Oslo. “I think it is all to the good that psychiatrists, as other experts, get decreased power in the system, and that the judges and juries regain their authority.”

The debate has its roots from the first psychiatric report. As soon as Breivik was declared sane, many started to question the reliability of the system. How could someone who so meticulously planned a complicated attack over so many years be psychotic? 

Breivik had bought a farm and produced his own fertilizer explosives. On July 22, he planted a car bomb in front of the government building and then drove to the island of Utøya disguised as a police officer to massacre the Labor party youth at their summer camp. Prior to that, he spent years writing a 1,500-page manifesto in English detailing his crusade against the Muslim colonization of Europe. 

“Of course he is sick, but if he is insane or not, that is something else,” Eskil Pedersen, leader of Labour party youth organization AUF who escaped Utøya that day, recently told members of the Norwegian Foreign Press Association. “You can’t be normal and kill 77 people, but you can be sane in the legal way.” 

The outcry after the controversial first report has revealed Norwegians’ thirst for justice in a country otherwise known for scorning capital punishment and life sentences and promoting rehabilitation of prisoners. Suddenly victims were worried that Norway’s most notorious killer in modern times might not serve prison time – in this case 21 years – for his heinous acts. Many felt it wasn’t enough that he would be sent to compulsory mental care. 

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