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OPINION: Why reaction to Støjberg verdict is important for democracy in Denmark

Former immigration minister Inger Støjberg was on Monday sentenced to 60 days in prison after a special impeachment court found her guilty of deliberately issuing an illegal order while in office.

Inger Støjberg speaks to Danish media after being sentenced to 60 days in prison by a special impeachment court on December 13th.
Inger Støjberg speaks to Danish media after being sentenced to 60 days in prison by a special impeachment court on December 13th. Photo: Mads Claus Rasmussen/Ritzau Scanpix

The rare trial, only the third of its kind since 1910, took place because a majority in parliament – including most of Støjberg’s own party, the Liberals (Venstre) – voted in favour of it earlier this year after an independent commission concluded there were grounds for an impeachment case.

Støjberg left the Liberals after that vote but was still part of the party she represented as a minister at the time it voted for the impeachment court.

After over 30 court meetings throughout the autumn, an overwhelming majority of 25 out of 26 judges decided on Monday that the ex-minister was “guilty of a deliberate violation of the Ministerial Responsibility Act,” the Court of Impeachment of the Realm said in a statement.

A majority of 15 of the judges were in favour of an unconditional prison sentence, which was set at 60 days. Of the 26 judges, 13 of which were selected by parliament with the other 13 coming from the Danish supreme court, Højesteret.

The verdict means the ex-minister was guilty of violating the European Convention on Human Rights when she ordered the separation of asylum seeker couples in 2016 where the woman was under 18 — though the age differences were mostly small — without examining the cases individually.

Her decision was found to be “unlawful” because the arrangement was made without exceptions and the immigration service did not consider individual cases.

Throughout the time of the official commission and the trial itself, Støjberg has repeatedly tried to pivot the focus of discussion around it to a question of whether or not arranged child marriages should be allowed in Denmark.

This is what she was trying to prevent with the 2016 order, went her argument, and therefore anyone seeking to punish her for issuing that order does not oppose arranged child marriages and, by extension, “Danish values”.

READ ALSO: Controversial email changes nothing: Danish immigration minister Støjberg (2019)

There are two very obvious flaws to this deflection: First, Støjberg was on trial for issuing an illegal directive which broke the ministerial law, not for opposing child marriage.

Second, she could have issued a legal order which would have had the effect she claimed to desire: individual case assessment could have resulted in separation of couples which were formed as a result of duress on an underage bride. Other, legitimate couples – with children and age differences of as little as two years – would have been unaffected.

Reports on the affected couples in Danish media, particularly newspaper Politiken, have shed light on how some of the women affected by the order had in fact fled with similarly-aged partners from forced marriages in their home countries. A woman separated from her partner by Støjberg’s illegal order attempted suicide around 14 days after the separation. The couple had a seven-month-old infant at the time.

It’s worth noting that pre-existing laws already provided some protection against forced marriages. A 2017 report by Dagbladet Information suggested that either one or zero women had been able to escape a forced marriage as a result of the controversial order. 23 couples in total were forcibly separated by the directive.

Critics of the former minister have argued that, in contrary to her own claims, she was never motivated by a desire to protect young refugee girls and women but rather sought to push through yet another harsh rule aimed at immigrants or refugees. That is something she has a track record for; humanitarian concern for young Muslim women is not.

It’s clear that Støjberg elicits both strong opposition and strong support amongst the Danish public. For every person who showed up outside the court at Eigtveds Pakhus in Copenhagen on Monday to support her (some supporters brought a large banner which simply read “F*CK ISLAM”), there must have been dozens of tweets gloating about the verdict, with no lack of references to cakes or spending time looking at fences.

Nevertheless, the court’s decision was very close to being unanimous. All parties, including the Liberals, fell in behind it with one exception: the struggling Danish People’s Party which has in recent weeks been desperately courting Støjberg to become its new leader.

This aside, we have not seen the bipartisanship or the closing of ranks which you might have expected had this story played out in other countries.

Former high-profile government colleagues of Støjberg, including previous Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen, have spoken in acceptance of the court’s judgement. So have the governing Social Democrats, who themselves rely upon a hostile stance towards immigration and refugees as part of their political platform. The Liberal party said it had “taken into account” the sentence given to its ex-minister.

By convention, politicians with criminal convictions are excluded from being members of parliament but there is no exact precedence in Støjberg’s case because she was found guilty by a special impeachment court, rather than in a regular criminal trial.

The centre-left Social Liberal (Radikale Venstre) party said on Tuesday it supports firing Støjberg as a lawmaker, as did a party on the right in the form of the libertarian Liberal Alliance.

READ ALSO: OPINION: Why do the names of Danish political parties have to be so confusing?

The Social Democrats, the Conservatives, and the Liberals are yet to state their position, pending meetings between their parliamentary representatives. An outcome is expected by next week.

Should a majority decide Støjberg’s conviction makes her unworthy of sitting in parliament, she will be fired from her elected position as lawmaker. It should be noted that this does not exclude her forever: she could run for election in 2023 and be voted back in.

It feels relevant to point out here that a majority in parliament earlier this year voted through new laws which permanently prevent anyone from becoming a Danish citizen if they have past conditional or unconditional sentences, much less served a jail term for breaking the law as a minister. But that is not the point of this article.

The correct and seemingly only logical decision for parliament is now to fire Støjberg. Almost all parties on both sides of the political fence have accepted the outcome of the trial, eschewing the possible political gain from following a populist line, which would have been to criticise the court or in some other way seek to undermine the verdict and cast Støjberg as an innocent victim.

By not doing this, they have exposed the one party, the Danish People’s Party, and Støjberg herself, who chose to espouse a narrative which does not reflect the substance of the impeachment trial. The lesson here is that if you want to talk up Danish values, that must include Danish rule of law.

This is a good sign for the separation of powers in Danish democracy because one politician – a very charismatic, influential, popular one at that – was not bigger than the system, unable to spin her way out of trouble by pushing a misleading narrative.

Member comments

  1. Didn`t realise The Local was so left wing when I arranged my subscription. I like my news to be presented in a neutral way and like to come to my own conclusions.

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2022 DANISH ELECTION

Frederiksen wants centre coalition for Denmark’s next government

Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen said on Wednesday that she will seek to form a government across the political centre after the upcoming parliamentary election on November 1st.

Frederiksen wants centre coalition for Denmark's next government

Frederiksen said she was prepared to form a cross-aisle government, in a move that would break with Denmark’s established ‘bloc politics’ system which sees left- and right-wing parties in opposing factions.

Denmark will choose a new government on Tuesday November 1st after Frederiksen on Wednesday announced a parliamentary election.

“The time has come to try a new form of government in Denmark. We are ready for both compromise and collaboration,” she said in the announcement.

“We want a broad government with parties on both sides of the political centre,” she said during the briefing, at which press questions were not taken.

READ ALSO: ‘Bloc politics’: A guide to understanding general elections in Denmark

An election-related advertisement placed by Frederiksen’s Social Democratic party in Danish newspapers on Wednesday morning also hinted at cross-aisle government.

“Reality is about working together. The election is about who can make it happen”, stated the ad, which was placed in all major Danish newspapers.

A centre coalition could in theory see the Social Democrats team up with the Liberal (Venstre) party, the largest on the right wing, to form a grand coalition, a coalition of the two biggest parties in parliament who traditionally oppose each other.

It should be noted that the Conservative party could become the largest right-wing party after the election – polls place it very close to the Liberals on vote share.

Frederiksen told media on Wednesday that she saw both the Liberals and Conservatives as potential centre coalition partners, along with the centre-left Social Liberal (Radikale Venstre) and Socialist People’s (SF) parties.

The Social Liberals have already said they want a centre coalition, but the Liberals and the Conservatives both oppose it.

“We can make political agreements together, but I can’t see us forming a government together,” Conservative leader Søren Pape Poulsen told news wire Ritzau, adding he “cannot imagine” such a scenario.

The Liberals, who are closer to the centre ideologically than the Conservatives and therefore a more conceivable partner in a centre coalition, also appeared on Wednesday to clearly reject the prospect.

READ ALSO: Who do Denmark’s right-wing parties want to be prime minister?

“I am running for election as Denmark’s next prime minister in a new conservative-liberal government,” Liberal leader Jakob Ellemann-Jensen told Ritzau.

Ellemann-Jensen ruled out working with Frederiksen.

“We want different things. And I do not trust Mette Frederiksen,” he said. Frederiksen has come under fire from opposition parties for her role in the the 2020 mink scandal, which resulted in criticism of the government and Frederiksen receiving an official rebuke.

Despite the major conservative parties rejecting a cross-aisle government, a new party – which is led by a political heavyweight – explicitly supports the idea, keeping it in play as a potential outcome.

The Moderate party, headed by former prime minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen, has not declared for either the left or right wing bloc. Rasmussen has said he would prefer a coalition across the centre. He led a right-wing ‘blue bloc’ government as leader of his previous party, the Liberals.

On the eve of the last election in 2019, Rasmussen, then prime minister, sprang a surprise by dramatically announcing his priority was to form a cross-aisle government with traditional rivals the Social Democrats.

The 2019 election ended with the Social Democrats coming to power and forming a minority government after the ‘red bloc’ of parties on the left gained an overall majority.

Recent polls have suggested the election could be a knife-edge contest, with little to choose between the ‘red bloc’ of left-wing parties, led by Frederiken’s Social Democrats, and the opposing ‘blue bloc’ of right-wing parties.

An opinion poll conducted by Voxmeter on behalf of news wire Ritzau, published on Monday, put the red bloc on 86 of Denmark’s 179 seats in parliament, one ahead of the blue bloc, on 85 seats.

Of the remaining eight seats four were projected to go to the Moderates, meaning they could tip the scales in either direction.

The final four seats are allocated to representatives from parties in Greenland and the Faroe Islands.

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