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Norway's justice system faces severe test

By Lars Bevanger
Norwegian journalist, Oslo


Rehabilitation of convicted felons is central to Norway's criminal justice system, which is one of the most progressive in Europe.

That system now faces a severe test, as it must consider the possibility of rehabilitating Anders Behring Breivik, the self-confessed perpetrator of last week's twin terror attacks.

Norwegians have in recent days responded to the prime minister's plea of answering Friday's brutal violence with more democracy.

They have turned out in their tens of thousands carrying flowers, united in defiance of someone who wanted to divide Norwegian society.

image captionMr Breivik has confessed to the attacks but not pleaded guilty

Complete isolation

On Wednesday that sentiment was echoed by the man now in charge of guarding Mr Breivik, who has started his initial eight-week custodial sentence.

Knut Bjarkeid, prison governor at Ila prison, told Norway's largest tabloid VG: "This task will be a professional challenge. We must take care of him in a human way."

Mr Breivik will spend four weeks in complete isolation in a cell containing nothing but a bed, a toilet, a table and a chair.

That will be relaxed for the remaining four weeks, but he will still be allowed no access to letters, newspapers or other media. Police can then approach the courts to ask for further detention if investigations are still ongoing.

While in custody he will be assessed by two forensic psychologists.

This work could take up to three months. If he is found to be of unsound mind he could be consigned to closed psychiatric care.


Norway's criminal system will have to deal with a case that includes an unprecedented level of crime when the trial of Mr Breivik gets under way at the end of police investigations.

He is charged with acts of terrorism, which carry a maximum sentence of 21 years, and has admitted being behind the Oslo bomb blast and Utoeya shooting spree which killed at least 76 people.

If found guilty of these charges at 32 years of age, he would be a free man at 53. Despite the nature of the crimes he has confessed to, legal experts say he will most likely be offered various chances of rehabilitation during his time in prison.

"Rehabilitation is central to Norway's system," said Hedda Giertsen, a professor in criminology at the University of Oslo.

"A lot of resources are put into this. The idea is for people to be able to leave prison and lead a life free from crime.

"There is help to find accommodation, help with personal finances, education - nearly half of Norway's prison population is offered some sort of course or education."

Statistics indicate this policy does work.

image captionMr Breivik will spend four weeks in complete isolation

Re-conviction rates in Norway are low compared to other European countries, and currently stand at about 20%, compared to around 50% in the UK.

Yet to many the idea of rehabilitating the perpetrator of Norway's worst peacetime terror attacks will be difficult to stomach.

People have been voicing their hopes that he could spend the rest of his life behind bars.

Still there have been few calls for adapting Norway's criminal justice system to make it easier to sentence someone to life in prison in cases of extreme terror.

Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg told the press on Wednesday he would not intervene in this discussion because it was important to keep the separation between the government and the courts.

"We have the possibility of long sentences in Norway - 21 years is a long sentence - in addition we have a system of preventative detention which makes it possible to have people longer in jail if that's regarded as necessary to protect the society," he said.

image captionNorwegians have turned out on the streets in their tens of thousands to commemorate victims

"I think we now have to await the investigations, we have to await the decisions of the court, before we comment on the sentences," he added.

The maximum prison sentence for criminal offences in Norway is 21 years, or 30 years in cases of crimes against humanity.

The courts can also agree to so-called preventative detention, which allows for reviews of a sentence every five years - a system which in theory could mean life imprisonment. So far this has never happened.

A male nurse found guilty of murdering 22 of his elderly patients was released in 2004 after serving 12 out of his maximum sentence of 21 years in prison.

He is presumed to be living under a new identity at an unknown address. There have been no attempts by media to disclose his whereabouts.

Prosecutors must choose between asking for preventative detention, life imprisonment (21 years) or the maximum of 30 years for crimes against humanity.

If Mr Breivik is found guilty as charged of terrorism, the prosecution will have forfeited its right to ask for preventative detention, and he would walk free at 53.

Correction, 28 July 2011: This story originally said that the maximum sentence for terrorism was 30 years, implying Mr Breivik would be freed at 62. In fact it is 21 years - 30 years is the maximum for crimes against humanity.