The practice of ‚restoring honour‘ has come under increased criticism in Iceland of late and the issue has disbanded the coalition government of the country. A recent verdict by the Ministry of Justice has allowed the disclosing of information about which individuals have provided letters of recommendations to former convicts applying for a restoration of honour. In a recent turn of events, the coalition government formed under the auspices of Prime Minister Bjarni Benediktsson, leader of Sjálfstæðisflokkurinn (The Independence Party), disbanded after just under a year in power. The governing body of Björt Framtíð (Bright Future) elected to disband the governing coalition after a case of breached confidence regarding a case of restored honour. The case revolves around the convicted paedophile Hjalti Sigurjón Hauksson, who had his honour restored recently.
The case that brought the government down
The case that is currently the focal point of the national debate, is centred on convicted paedophile Hjalti Sigurjón Hauksson. Hjalti received a five-and-a-half-year prison sentence for sexually abusing his stepdaughter from the ages of five years old to eighteen years. One of the men who provided a letter of recommendation for Hjalti was Benedikt Sveinsson, father of prime minister Bjarni Benediktsson. Bjarni was informed of the letter last July by Minister of Justice Sigríður Á. Árnadóttir. Sigríður had kept the name from the media, and the populace, since June. This information was not relayed to Björt Framtíð and Viðreisn (The Reform Party), the two parties that form the coalition government alongside Sjálfstæðisflokkurinn. Thus, 87% of the governing body of Björt Framtíð voted to disband the coalition. An official statement from Viðreisn also condemns the breach of trust as the party calls for an immediate Parliamentary election.
Restoring honour is an old legal process that effectively wipes the slate clean for convicted criminals. Some official positions in Iceland, such as a practising lawyer, a member of Parliament, or even as the President of Iceland, require people to have an unblemished reputation, and a restored honour makes people eligible for these positions again. The applying individual has also to provide two letters of recommendations to prove that he is a person of a sound moral character. An application for honour restored has, to this day, never been rejected. There are other notable cases of restored honour that have taken place in recent times. Atli Helgason is a currently practising lawyer who brutally murdered his business partners when he struck him with a hammer and hid him in a lava field. Atli had his ‘honour restored’ in January 2016, around 15 years after having murdered his associate near the town of Grindavík. Another case which spurred the national debate as of late is the one of Róbert Árni Heiðarsson. Former victims of Róbert stepped forward and pressed charges against him when he had his application approved. Róbert, who changed his name to Robert Downey in order to hide his true identity, had his honour restored in a court of law recently. He was, previously, convicted of sexual abuse crimes as he seduced underage girls where he posed as a teenager named ‘Rikki’. A sentence was passed on Róbert in 2008 for sexual crimes against four teenage girls in the years of 2005 and 2006. Róbert Árni Heiðarsson had his honour restored on the 16th of September in 2016 alongside Hjalti and three other individuals. It is these cases and their handling that led to the nation casting its eye on these issues.
Involvement of the President
Guðni Th. Jóhannesson, the president of Iceland, was criticised for approving Róbert’s application. However, Guðni has since criticised the process as the President is not involved in the handling of these cases. The Ministry of Justice suggests cases that are deemed fit for approval, after an inspection by lawyers, which are brought to the President for his final approval. In a rousing speech, during the official opening of the Parliamentary year, Guðni heavily criticized the current format of honour restored. The President called for a revision of the Constitution with an emphasis placed on defining the role of the President further. Minister of Justice Sigríður Á. Árnadóttir has also stated that she intended to suggest a parliamentary bill for a law change regarding the issue of restored honour.
The case is also related to the fact that the Icelandic populace has decided that enough is enough in the matter of sexual crimes. Movements such as #HöfumHátt (loosely translated as #MakeSomeNoise) have brought sexual crimes into the to the forefront of natural discussion. There has been a call for heavier sentences for sexual crimes for some time now. Sentences in Iceland are generally quite lenient as, for example, the maximum sentence that has been given out for first-degree murder is only 16 years. Alongside the restoration of honour for Hjalti and Róbert was an individual who had his honour restored after having been sentenced for drug related crimes, yet there was no furore over this case. Icelanders seem to strongly disapprove of sexual crimes and the restoration of honour for offending individuals. The nation has had its full of the era of secrecy and now demands a fundamental change to the system. It is also thought-provoking to look at what actually lies in the meaning of words. Many are of the opinion that the term honour restored is a misleading one, as well as ‘unblemished reputation’. While many believe in the rehabilitative powers of imprisonment and the loss of personal freedom it is clear that there is a discrepancy between that idea and the actual meaning of restored honour.
In Focus is a series of articles intended to shed a light on contemporary issues in Iceland, keeping readers informed on subjects and matters present in the national discussion.