No clear winners in trial of Anders Behring Breivik

Breivik got 21 years, but was found sane as he wanted. Prosecutors saw him jailed, but mishandled the psychiatric findings. And now the prime minister is feeling heat for security's slow response.

Heiko Junge/NTB Scanpix/AP
Defense lawyers Geir Lippestad (l.) and Vibeke Hein Baera stand together with mass murderer Anders Behring Breivik in the courtroom, Friday, Aug. 24, in Oslo, Norway.

Last week concluded what has been a confusing and all-consuming trial against Anders Behring Breivik in what was supposed to be a cut and dry case.

Breivik was caught on the island of Utøya with a Glock pistol, Ruger semi-automatic rifle, and an arsenal of ammunition after having killed 69 people at Labor party youth summer camp. He even confessed to the bomb attack on the government headquarters earlier that day that killed eight, and detailed his entire planning to police shortly after his capture.

By all measures, the case should have been over long ago. Instead, it dragged on for 13 months with a final verdict falling on Friday: The 33-year-old Norwegian and self-proclaimed militant nationalist was sentenced to the maximum sentence of 21 years’ permanent detention for terrorist acts.

Now, there are renewed calls today for Jens Stoltenberg, Norway’s prime minister, to accept responsibility for failing to protect Norwegians from the attack and the slow police response that day.

After watching the trial for 10 weeks and listening to the debates since the attacks, one can’t help but feel something is lacking. In many ways, it is still not clear who really won.

Technically, Breivik did, at least on legal precedence. He was arguing to be judged sane so that his militant nationalist ideology would stand stronger. He attacked the Labor party targets because he faults them for allowing too many Muslim immigrants into Norway and thereby promoting the “ethnic cleansing of indigenous Norwegians.” The court ruled that he was sane and not paranoid schizophrenic as the first of two forensic psychiatric reports concluded.

He also won by getting considerable media coverage of his political ideology during the trial.  Indeed, in the political manifesto he released online shortly before his killing spree, he referred to the trial as part of “the propaganda phase” of his publicity efforts. That phase is expected to continue from prison, where he plans to write a trilogy of political books in English and correspond with supporters.

He did lose on one main point: that he be found not guilty.  Judge Wenche Elizabeth Arntzen rejected his argument that his planned massacre was a “pre-emptive attack” to avoid a wider civil war that would ensue as a result of the Muslim colonization of Europe. Neither Norwegian law, nor the European Court of Human Rights, gives the right to assassinate government figures for extreme political purposes, she said as part of the historic 90-page verdict.

As for the prosecution, technically they did not win because they were pressing for him to be remanded to compulsory psychiatric care.  The judges instead found that Breivik was sane and legally punishable. However, how horrible is it for prosecutors to lose and see a mass murderer go to prison?

Still the case is embarrassing for the prosecution because it never really questioned the first psychiatric report that found him psychotic. Tor-Aksel Busch, Norway’s chief of public prosecutions, even had to apologize after the verdict for not having ordered a second report. Had legal counsel for the victims not pressed for a new report, Breivik could have gotten away with the crime of the century.

As for the victims, it’s a pale victory. Yes, they get to see Breivik held accountable for the murders and put an end to their 13-month ordeal. But they will still be struggling to deal with the senselessness of his car bomb attack at the government headquarters and the brutality of the executions at Utøya, where he gunned down Labor party youths in cold blood for more than one hour.

The real loser may be Prime Minister Stoltenberg and the Labor party, the target of Breivik’s attacks. Stoltenberg is currently under fire after the scathing 22 July Commission’s report earlier this month revealed that the attacks could have been prevented and lives saved by a swifter police response.

Stoltenberg today presented his strategy for implementing the 22 July Commission’s recommended changes during an extraordinary session of parliament. The hard-pressed minister apologized for the failings leading up to and during the attacks. The commission documented a failure in Norwegian preparedness that was “more comprehensive and deeper than I was prepared for,” he told parliament.

However, he failed to dissuade politicians from considering a possible call for his removal. Knut Arild Hareide, leader of the Christian Democratic Party, said it would be “irresponsible to rule out” a confidence motion against Stoltenberg in the future. The minister will next have to answer more questions when he appears before the parliament’s control and constitutional committee in coming months.

Stoltenberg will most likely survive the political year until next September’s elections as his coalition government holds a parliamentary majority, but he will be damaged. A recent poll by Ipsos MMI for Norwegian newspaper Dagbladet this week showed that more Norwegians prefer Conservative party leader Erna Solberg as prime minister over Stoltenberg 36 percent versus 25 percent.

Regardless, Breivik will spend the next 21 years in prison and possibly more.  Although there are no life sentences in Norway, he will most likely remain incarcerated under a Norwegian law that allows his detention to be rolled over in five-year intervals indefinitely.

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