OSLO: He gives a Nazi-style salute when he arrives in the courtroom each morning. He tells the court he rejects its authority because its mandate comes from political parties that support multiculturalism. And he admits that because he hates Muslims he killed 77 people and wishes it were more.
But Anders Behring Breivik is treated with grave civility in Oslo’s District Court and has five days of testimony in which to expound his twisted political views. To those used to the rigid laws of evidence in the British-style system of justice, the openness of this trial is extraordinary and, some have suggested, dangerous.
Why give the narcissistic Breivik a soapbox when that is just what he wants? Could he inspire other sick loners into copycat crimes? Is it right to allow him to wound victims’ families yet again by allowing him to denigrate the loved ones he killed?
In his first day of evidence, Breivik said the many teenagers he slaughtered at a Labour Party youth camp last July were not childlike innocents but more akin to Hitler Youth. He also attacked by name journalist Marte Michelet, who writes on Islamophobia and whose Iranian-born partner, Ali Esbati, survived the massacre on Utoya Island.
Breivik said Michelet, who had lectured at the camp, was an extreme Marxist and a traitor for having had a baby by Esbati, and her attendance showed how corrupt Labour’s youth wing was.
But Mr Esbati still strongly defends the openness of Breivik’s trial, and is one of many Norwegians who feel the court should have allowed Breivik’s evidence to be televised (the court has banned TV cameras from some parts of the proceedings: Breivik’s own testimony, the evidence of victims, and the screening of footage of his bomb blast).
Mr Esbati has said it was important to hear Breivik’s reasoning because his views could be found elsewhere in Europe: “These views are extreme but unfortunately, to a growing degree, they have been normalised and moved into the mainstream of European political debate; the idea that Muslims are problematic per se, the proposition that there are warlike situations in European countries and that we should take political action against that.”
Even those uncomfortable with the trial process acknowledge it has its merits. One of the rescuers at Utoya, Allan Jensen, told Sky News: “I don’t like him getting speaker’s corner for a whole week. I don’t think that’s good. But that’s democracy.”
More generally, many Norwegians are recoiling from the blizzard of Breivik media reports. Before his trial began, a survey found that one-third of Norwegians thought there had been too much coverage of his crimes. The newspaper Dagbladet has offered a no-Breivik button on its website. Before he committed his atrocities, Breivik wrote that the purpose of a trial for someone like him was to win more sympathisers.
The reporter Asne Seierstad wrote that the trial would give him what he wanted, “a stage, a pulpit, a spellbound, notebook-clutching, pencil-wielding audience … are we puppets on a string, or are we doing what’s right and necessary?”
Jon Johnsen, professor of law at the University of Oslo, told the Herald the openness was in accordance with Norwegian law and would help to debunk myths that might otherwise be created about Breivik’s motivation for what he had done. “Of course his views are offending but the question is whether they become more dangerous if he’s allowed to express them than if he’s not.”
Svein Bruras, associate professor of journalism at Volda University College, had been critical of some of the media coverage. But he too supports the openness of the trial, critical only of the decision to ban broadcasting of Breivik’s evidence.
“This is the most serious act of crime in Norway since World War II,” he said. “It affects the entire nation and a lot of people are following the court proceedings through the media and when they are denied the possibility of listening to Breivik, they are not given a full account of proceedings.” He said it was important for people to see his demeanour for themselves, given that a central question is whether Breivik is sane.
“I know he had other supporters out there, maybe not very many, and there’s a danger he may inspire other people, but I think we need to hear his explanations.”
Professor Bruras said the media had been responsible in their reporting and had not published gruesome details of the killings. In one example of such a judgment call, the Guardian journalist Helen Pidd refused to tweet some of Breivik’s comments at one point, saying they were “too heartless”.
Thomas Mathiesen, professor of sociology of law at Oslo University, said Breivik had not been able to distort the openness of Norway’s system because what he says is filtered through lawyers, journalists and the Norwegian people themselves, whose view of him is “markedly critical, and that means he doesn’t get across his message”.
First published in the Sydney Morning Herald.