To understand the Haarde trial it is best to think of it as part of a larger process of transitional justice in Iceland. After the bloodless national trauma of the financial collapse, Iceland is in the process of coming to terms with what actually happened. As in many countries in transition from conflict or repressive regimes, Iceland has had regime change, a truth commission, a process to provide reparation for the victims who were the hardest hit and institutional reforms intended to prevent history from repeating itself.
The quest for truth and justice has been given highest priority in the hope that seeing the culprits sentenced in a fair trial will help the nation put the crisis behind it. Some of the former top bankers have been charged with fraud, embezzlement, insider trading and related charges, and the investigations are still ongoing. Public opinion is already solidly behind the notion that the bankers involved are guilty, and people are impatient to see them stand trial. But there is no such unanimity in public opinion on the guilt of the politicians involved.
The strength of Monday’s verdict over Iceland’s former Prime Minister Geir H. Haarde is also its weak point. It is both a conviction and an acquittal and there is no sentence. But the verdict balances too carefully on the thin, gray line between scapegoating and a just sentence, and ends up creating more discontent than harmony. As a result, the Icelandic public can’t even agree who the judgment favours.
Haarde is the only politician who has been charged for his role in the financial crisis that started in 2008. He was tried under the Icelandic law on ministerial responsibility on four counts of negligence. As Prime Minister during the immediate run-up to the crisis, the indictment asserted, he should have taken more decisive action than he did. It was the first time that the Icelandic judicial system had invoked the law to put a politician on trial.
Haarde was found guilty for not having adequately informed his cabinet of the looming crisis, including by not holding cabinet meetings on the impending banking crisis, a relatively minor infraction by the sound of it. But the reasoning behind the verdict is fair and reveals the weight of the charge. The verdict (in Icelandic) acknowledges that a higher number of cabinet meetings would probably not have prevented the crisis altogether, but a coherent policy borne out of cabinet meetings with all the relevant ministers would have made them better prepared to respond to the crisis and, crucially, limit the damage.
In acquitting Haarde of the remaining counts, the judges acknowledge the necessarily hypothetical nature of a court case where a man is charged with not doing that which he maybe should have done. The verdict argues that as it was not proven that further actions would have prevented the banking crisis, he cannot therefore be found guilty. It acknowledges that Haarde bears some of the blame while exempting him from formal punishment.
Many agree with what Haarde himself said in an interview with Al Jazeera, that it is unjust to hold one man responsible for the failure of a democratic political system. Others think that Haarde, who served as minister of finance from 1998 and as Prime Minister from 2006 to 2009, carried more responsibility than others, in light of his position and his experience.
It is not only Icelanders who have found room for interpretation in the verdict. The international media ran with headlines that tracked along three main readings of the court’s decision: Haarde was cleared of all charges but one; he was convicted for one of four charges; despite a guilty verdict, he escapes an actual punishment.
In Iceland, the verdict is as divisive as it is Solomonic. It leaves the floor open for both sides to interpret it in their favour. In all of the brouhaha, there is little attention to the voices who remind us that a court case is in its nature only a process to test whether laws have been broken. Breaches of morals or ethics will be determined outside the courtroom.
This article was originally published on the Laws of Rule on April 26, 2012
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