Trial in Norway shows the excesses of populist right-wing in power

What probably began as a personal vendetta has become the trial to “protect democracy” in Norway, by showing the excesses of the populist right in Prime Minister Erna Solberg's government coalition

Trial in Norway shows the excesses of populist right-wing in power
The trial against Laila Anita Bertheussen has shed light on the covert connection between government members, right-wing politicians and websites on the outer right wing - Photo: Taken from Black Box Teater Instagram account (@blackboxteater)
English 18/09/2020 14:23 Gabriel Moyssen Mexico City Actualizada 14:23

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What probably began as a personal vendetta has become the trial to “protect democracy” in Norway, by showing the excesses of the populist right in Prime Minister Erna Solberg's government coalition.

The story of the judicial process that initiated last week garnering attention in the Nordic country, defined by political commentators as “absurd” and “unbelievable,” originated late 2018 in an Oslo theater.

Laila Anita Bertheussen, partner of Minister of Justice and Public Security Tor Mikkel Wara for the last 26 years, attended the performance of the play Ways of Seeing in both astonishment and indignation. Their own house was exhibited in a video along with those of other right-wing politicians, such as Atlantic Alliance Secretary General, Jens Stoltenberg.

 
 
 
 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Una publicación compartida por Black Box teater (@blackboxteater) el

The plot of the play, mounted by the small Black Box Teater company, spoke of how migrants arrive in Norway believing they have escaped discrimination and racism, only to find these evils once again, driven by politicians as Wara and its Progress Party, member of Solberg's Conservative-led coalition until January 2020.

It also noted that Wara replaced in the Royal Ministry of Justice and Public Security his party colleague, the “racist and IslamophobicSylvi Listhaug, who had to resign after accusing the Labour Party of being more concerned about the rights of terrorists than national security.

Furious, the 55-year-old Bertheussen did not hesitate to criticize the play in the Verdens Gang newspaper. “They call it art; I call it a serious violation of my private life,” she stressed. On social media, she also insisted on how the actors filmed her house, which could even motivate attacks against her and Wara.

Less than a week later, a series of mysterious attacks began against the couple, in which their house and family car were vandalized with swastikas and the word “racist” misspelled in Norwegian. The last and most serious incident culminated with the car being set on fire, while Wara was enjoying the weekend with a football match in England.

Two of his colleagues from the Progress Party, lawmaker Christian Tybring-Gjedde and his wife Ingvil Smines Tybring-Gjedde, who later became Minister of Public Security, were also threatened by mail.The former, it is worth mentioning, nominated United States President Donald Trump this month for the 2020 Nobel for helping broker a “peace deal” between Israel and the United Arab Emirates.

Wara and Bertheussen received ample demonstrations of solidarity, including from Solberg, who accused the theater company of making the lives of politicians more difficult.

Bertheussen denounced Anne-Cecile Sibue-Birkeland, director of Black Box Teater, and Pia Maria Roll, director of Ways of Seeing, as well as two other artists related to the play, to the police. At first, the charge was dismissed by authorities, enraging her even more, but later a formal accusation was brought against them for alleged invasion of privacy.

Dramatic turn
However, the investigations took a dramatic turn when prosecutors charged Bertheussen with being behind the attacks, in a ruse to make it look as though Wara and the Tybring-Gjeddes were being threatened by leftists, Islamists, or the artists involved in the play. Under intense pressure, Wara, who called the case “an attack on our democracy,” had to resign in March 2019.

According to the inquiry led by State Prosecutor Marit Formo, there is numerous technical evidence against Bertheussen, ranging from data from her computers showing how she would track down information on Sibue-Birkeland to the way she set her car on fire herself. 

The newspaper Aftenposten detailed that a security camera operated from inside the couple’s home had been turned off before the fire started in their car.

Prosecutors also presented evidence last week of communications between Bertheussen and Ingvil Smines Tybring-Gjedde, shortly after the first attack at her house. She asked Tybring-Gjedde if she had contacts in Norwegian media to whom she could leak the photos of her vandalized car, obtaining by answer that “NRK [the public-owned radio and television broadcasting company] is taking them. They are dropping everything.”

Then emerged that Tybring-Gjedde was part of a social media group including Bertheussen, Progress politician Line Miran Sandberg (former wife of another Justice Minister for Progress, Per Sandberg, who resigned after traveling to Iran with his new Iranian partner), and Rita Karlsen of anti-immigration group Human Rights Service.

In the same way, it was revealed in court that Bertheussen created a false Facebook profile under the name “Anita Berg” to criticize Black Box Teater. The trial is scheduled to run until November 13; if found guilty, she would face up to 16 years in prison, while Tybring-Gjedde and Wara will be called to testify.

For her part, Sibue-Birkeland has stated that Black Box Teater supports with its “documentary theater” the idea that art “can be confronting, disturbing, uncomfortable, that it can cause controversies and debates.”

However, she stressed, “we do not encourage, nor accept further polarization of public debate. We condemn all forms of violence.” The theater company is annually funded by the Royal Norwegian Ministry of Culture and the City of Oslo with nearly USD $1 million.

The artists involved in Ways of Seeing, she added, have been subject to threats so serious that they were reported to the police. “We are also saddened by the fact that Bertheussen endured emotional stress as a result of her house being filmed in Ways of Seeing.”

Although both Solberg and Wara declared themselves “shocked” by the turnaround in the investigations, the prime minister has refused to apologize to Black Box Teater and the artists involved in the case. She has been harshly criticized by other more mainstream cultural officials, including the head of the Norwegian National Theatre, yet her main concerns seem to be focused on next year’s parliamentary election.

Solberg has even invited Wara to rejoin the cabinet; after the Progress Party abandoned her coalition, Conservatives have less than 35% of votes and just 53 seats in the Storting (Parliament). The left-center opposition collectively holds 81 seats and Progress-which won 15.2% of votes in the 2017 parliamentary election-has 27 seats on its own.

The representation of Ways of Seeing in Oslo “was a minor happening, yet it made headlines because of the hype from Bertheussen and her cronies, even the government,” told EL UNIVERSAL in English Norwegian independent analyst Halvor Ravn Holøyen. “And the hype kind of proved its points,” he said.

Holøyen pointed out that it is still unknown the impact of the scandal in the September 2021 parliamentary election, when all 169 seats in the legislature will be renewed, considering that it remains to be seen if Bertheussen is convicted and others are implicated.

The Progress Party, he estimated, is supported by a maximum of 20% of Norwegians. “They are a populist party, yet they are trying to maintain a serious facade. The party is torn between these positions and many followers are ambivalent.”

The political analyst added that far-right terrorism is still an issue in Norway, where prosecutors requested in May a 21-year sentence against Philip Manshaus, who admitted to opening fire in an Oslo mosque after killing his Chinese step-sister last year.

Manshaus, 22, was overpowered by a 65-year-old man in the Al-Noor mosque and there were no serious injuries. He claimed that his actions were inspired by the “necessity” of ensuring “survival of the white race” and the 2019 attacks in Christchurch, New Zealand, that left 51 people dead in two mosques.

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Christchurch terrorist Brenton Tarrant, in turn, declared he was inspired by Anders Behring Breivik; he is the “lone wolf” attacker who killed 77 people in a truck bomb blast near government offices in Oslo and a shooting spree at a Labour Party youth camp on the island of Utoya in 2011, during the worst attack in Norway since the Second World War.

Also in 2019, Norwegian authorities arrested Greg Johnson, a U.S. white supremacist, hours before he was due to give a speech at a far-right conference in Oslo. Johnson is editor-in-chief of Counter-Currents Publishing group and had been scheduled to speak at Scandza Forum, a network known for anti-Semitic and racist views.

Earlier, Norway’s intelligence service PST reported that right-wing terrorism was on the rise globally, warning that it was likely the country would be targeted in the near future.

“We can’t track down all of them,” said Hans Sverre Sjøvold, chief of PST, explaining that far-right terrorism has displaced Islamic extremists, Russian and Chinese hackers as the major threats in Norway.

Speaking at a meeting with members of Norway’s Foreign Press Association last year, Sjøvold remarked how even those considered “lone wolves” are not alone on the Internet. The extremists, he went on, “hate Jews, hate homosexuals, hate a lot. They have not been very well-organized,” yet now they are more active on the Internet “and they are communicating,” sharing Breivik’s manifesto “that is still out there.”

Editing by Sofía Danis
More by Gabriel Moyssen