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On trial

September 5, 2011

Former Icelandic Prime Minister Geir Haarde is the world's first political leader to face charges over the 2008 financial meltdown. He has asked for the charges to be dismissed.

Former Prime Minister of Iceland Geir Haarde
Haarde has described the case against him as a farceImage: picture-alliance/dpa

The trial of Iceland's former Prime Minister Geir Haarde, the world's first political leader to face charges over the 2008 financial meltdown, opened in Reykjavik on Monday.

The now 60-year-old former leader appeared confident as he arrived at the Icelandic capital's Culture House, where the trial is being held. Haarde is facing charges of gross negligence for his handling of the 2008 crisis.

Haarde is being put on trial by a special court set up to try current or former cabinet ministers for any alleged wrongdoing while in office. It's the first time a current or former minister has been put on trial and it comes after a parliamentary report released last year blamed a total four politicians, including Haarde, for contributing to the country's economic collapse which saw all of Iceland's major banks fail in the fall of 2008. As a result the banks were effectively nationalized when they were placed under the control of the Icelandic Financial Supervisory Authority.

Only one charged

However, the country's parliament, now controlled by a center-left bloc, voted last September to hold only the former prime minister and leader of the centre-right Independence Party to account.

Iceland's current finance minister, Steingrimur Sigfusson, who has been one of Haarde's harshest opponents, recently told the AFP news agency that it was important to put the former prime minister on trial because he had failed to do his job at a crucial time.

"When it became clear we were heading towards catastrophe ... the record shows very little was done to avoid it," Sigfusson said.

Seeking a dismissal of the charges

Protesters in a crowd
Iceland's bank crisis sparked anti-government protestsImage: AP

The former prime minister has described the case against him as a "farce," and on Monday his legal team asked the court to dismiss the charges, arguing, among other things, that parliament had ignored the constitutional rule of equal treatment under the law when it decided to indict just one of the four cabinet ministers blamed by the parliamentary report.

According to Karl Blöndel of the Morgunbladid newspaper, many people in Iceland think the former premier may have a point.

"Geir Haarde was the only one parliament decided to put on trial...the ministers from the Social Democratic Party were also implicated in this whole thing and parliament decided not to put them on trial," he said.

"From the outset this has been a little bit tainted in the minds of many Icelanders, that one party decided to spare its own but to put the prime minister that governed with him in front of the firing squad."

Haarde's legal team also argued that the rules of procedure in the special court were unclear, and that there were no specific arguments to back up his indictment.

Blöndel agrees that the vagueness of the charges against Haarde could pose a problem for the prosecution, saying that while there are general complaints against him, it may be difficult to find any individual laws that apply in this case.

"I think that is the breach that will be hard to bridge," he said.

Still optimistic

Following Monday's two-and-a-half hour hearing, Haarde remained upbeat.

"I've always been a very optimistic man," he told AFP. "It's no fun to have to deal with a matter like this ... [but] everything has gone well."

Haarde's legal team has already failed in two previous attempts to have the charges dismissed. The court is expected to take a number of weeks to rule on whether to dismiss the charges or let the case against Haarde proceed.

Author: Chuck Penfold
Editor: Martin Kuebler