A trial about more than (in)sanity | Europe| News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 16.04.2012
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A trial about more than (in)sanity

Insane or not, Anders Behring Breivik killed in cold blood, and the trial tasked with delving into his murderous undertakings will be a momentous test for Norway - much more than an assessment of one man's psyche.

Geir Lippestad, the attorney representing Breivik in what's likely to be the most spectacular trial in modern Norwegian history, was blunt in his ostensibly underestimated appraisal of what the proceedings would be like:

"It's going to be rather challenging," Lippestad told reporters before the trial got underway Monday, with reference to his client's intention to demonstrate his sanity to the five judges presiding over the case.

Breivik defense attorney Geir Lippestad

The trial will be a challenge for more than just Lippestad

The 33-year-old defendant claimed Monday that he acted in self-defense when he detonated a 950-kilogram bomb outside government square and then went on his horrific rampage on the Utoeya island just north of the capital. The attacks were aimed at leading members of the current government and participants in a Social Democrat youth camp on Utoeya.

"I admit the acts but am not guilty and cite self-defense," Breivik said, claiming that the victims were "terrorists to the state" who had opened up Norway to "multiculturalism" and a "Muslim invasion of Europe" that had already begun.

From the perspective of the court, given that Breivik has already confessed to having committed the 77 murders, the issue at hand is whether the defendant can be held accountable for his actions.

But the case is about more than Breivik's sanity. Viewed from the perspective of Norwegian society, which is known in Europe and around the world for its strict adherence to openness and democracy, the trial is much more a test of the very foundations on which the country stands.

'Nobody will be silenced'

Trials in Norway are, traditionally, public events. Any Norwegian citizen is free to sit in on the proceedings, as long as what's divulged represents no danger to national security or infringes on the emotions of the victims of sexual abuse.

Watch video 01:52

Anders Behring Breivik pleads not guilty

"It's very rare for any judge to close the doors of the court room in this country," Frithjof Jacobsen, chief columnist for Verdens Gang (VG), said in an interview with DW, adding that the Breivik case - despite its extraordinariness and the impossibility of allowing access to the general public - would be no different.

There has been much debate in Norway as to what extent journalists should be able to report on what's said at the trial, as well as whether the proceedings should be televised to compensate having to close the courtroom doors.

Hundreds of journalists have been accredited to cover the proceedings, and all Norwegian newspapers and broadcasters have agreed that what's said in the courtroom can be quoted in Norwegian publications.

"There are those that say Breivik should be banned from speaking, because he's said himself that he wants to use the trial to spread his views. 'Why should he be rewarded,' they ask, and quite rightfully so … But on the other hand there are also many Norwegians who want to know exactly what happened, who want to hear this man talk with their own ears so that they can form their own opinion of whether or not he's insane," Jacobsen said.

Norwegian flag and flowers for the victims of July 22, 2011 attacks

The families of the victims will be forced to hear Breivik's reasons for killing their loved ones

After both sides have made their opening statements, the defense will be allowed to present its arguments for Breivik's sanity, and it is this portion of the trial that most Norwegians are worried about. The defense team has said that in addition to Breivik himself, some 30-40 extremists and Islamists would be called to testify, which include a jailed mullah and a notorious far-right blogger.

"Nobody will be silenced," said Jacobsen: "As horrible as it all may become, we are living in a time of peace and democracy, and this is the way it will be."

'No alternative'

This "horror," or the pain that's likely to be caused by the proceedings over the next 10 weeks, has also been recognized abroad. In this week's edition of Germany's Die Zeit newspaper, there's an article on the front page that calls on Norway to go through with the trial, to find "sense" in the insanity that's set to be addressed.

One can hear in the article the echoes of Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg's stoic message to his people on the day of the attacks on July 22, 2011 when he said: "This will not change our democracy; we will answer with more democracy."

Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg

The Breivik trial will put Stoltenberg's words to the test

It would be wrong to say that Norway is looking forward to the Breivik trial - in fact if anything it appears that Norwegians are much awaiting its conclusion - but they are also determined to go through with it as if it were any other criminal proceeding.

"There's really no alternative," said our correspondent Lars Bevanger in an interview with DW: "It will be traumatic as the victims and their families will have to listen to what [Breivik] sees as his political platform - the reason their loved ones died."

"But if [the Norwegians] don't go through with this it would be to step away from normal procedure, which would allow this individual to change the course of democracy in this country. And this is expressly what he set out to achieve."

Author: Gabriel Borrud
Editor: Joanna Impey

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