Iceland is heading for its second snap election in a year after an alleged child sex abuse scandal involving the father of the Prime Minister brought down the coalition government.
Bright Future, one of the three parties that made up the centre-right coalition, announced in a Facebook post on Friday that it was “terminating cooperation with the government” due to a “breach of trust”.
In a press conference at Independence Party headquarters, Prime Minister Bjarni Benediksson said: “We have lost the majority and I don’t see anything that indicates we can regain that”. He then called for an election “as soon as possible”, hinting that the poll could take place in two months time.
The collapse was triggered after it was revealed that the ruling Independence Party had attempted to conceal a letter, written by the Prime Minister’s father, to help clear the criminal record of a friend of his, despite him being convicted of child sex offences.
His friend, Hjalti Sigurjón Hauksson, was convicted in 2004 of repeatedly raping his stepdaughter almost every day for twelve years. The girl was five years old when the abuse began. Hauksson was sentenced to five and a half years in prison – one of the longest sentences given for such a case in the country’s history. He was given a full pardon, known as ‘restored honour’ during the parliament’s summer break.
The Prime Minister and the Minister of the Interior were both aware who wrote the letter, but it was only after a Freedom of Information request was the identity of the person behind the letter made public.
Some on social media were quick to point out that this is the third time a government led by the Independence Party has collapsed in recent years.
Others have also accused the Government of a cover-up, especially after the information was kept from Independence’s own coalition partners.
This wasn’t the only controversial case of ‘restored honour’ this summer. Róbert Árni Hreiðarsson (now known as Robert Downey) was granted ‘restored honour’ so he could return to the legal profession, after being sentenced to three years in prison for sexually abusing at least four teenage girls. Downey has never admitted guilt or shown remorse for the crimes he committed.
Again, the Ministry of the Interior declined to name those who had supported his case, despite anonymity not being a legal requirement in such circumstances.
‘RESTORED HONOUR’ – THE CONTROVERSIAL LAW
The process that granted a convicted child sex offender a full pardon over the summer is known as uppreist æru or ‘restored honour’ in English. A controversial procedure, restored honour allows convicted criminals to have their reputation wiped clean, regardless of the crime they committed. This then allows them to access the same rights as non-offenders, such as working in professions that require clean criminal records.
The concept behind ‘restored honour’ comes from the idea of offenders having served their time for their crimes and they should then be allowed to have a second chance and demonstrate that they can be upstanding members of the community. The law allowing the process first came into force in 1940 and was originally intended to grant convicted criminals the right to vote.
In order to have your honour restored, you must provide ‘solid evidence’ of good behaviour over between two to five years since release. This includes witness testimony through letters of recommendation, vouching for your behaviour. Afterwards, it is submitted and reviewed by the Minister of the Interior. Technically, the President is the one who restores the honour of the individual, but in reality, all that is required is their signature – similar to that of Royal Assent for laws in the United Kingdom.
There have been several cases using the procedure in recent years. One of the most famous cases in recent memory is Atli Helgason, who was sentenced to 16 years in prison for manslaughter in 2001. After serving 10 years, he was granted restored honour last year to allow him to return to the legal profession.
In his press conference on Friday, Prime Minister hinted that legislation regarding the process of ‘restored honour’ may be reviewed in the near future.
Last year’s elections in Iceland were also triggered by a scandal that rocked Icelandic politics. Then-Prime Minister Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson resigned after it was revealed in the Panama Papers that he had not disclosed his share in a foreign company and creditor to some Icelandic banks. After he sold the company to his wife, the company benefited from deals made by the Icelandic government that Gunnlaugsson led. This conflict of interest led to protests in the country’s capital and snap elections followed shortly after.