Iceland’s former prime minister, the first world leader charged over the 2008 financial crisis that left nations on the edge of fiscal disaster, goes on trial today.
Geir Haarde became a symbol of the get-rich bubble economy for Icelanders who lost their jobs and homes after the country’s main commercial bank collapsed, sending its currency into a nosedive and inflation soaring.
He is accused of negligence in failing to prevent the financial implosion from which the small island country is still struggling to emerge.
Mr Haarde’s unprecedented trial – the culmination of a long fight by the politician to avoid prosecution – marks a new chapter in the aftermath of the crisis: accountability.
The former prime minister has rejected the charges, calling them “political persecution” and insisting he would be vindicated when he appears at the Landsdomur, a special court being convened for the first time in Iceland’s history to try him.
Experts say he has a strong chance of beating the charges, because of the strength of his legal team, growing sympathy for a politician alone in shouldering blame, and because the court’s structure – laid out in 1905 – is flawed because it allows politicians, not lawyers, to press charges.
In the crisis’s immediate aftermath, as unemployment and inflation skyrocketed, many sought to affix blame for the havoc across the 330,000-strong nation. A wave of public protests forced Mr Haarde out of government in 2009.
Some have argued that Iceland’s financial meltdown was tied to the global crisis, and that the government could not have predicted or prevented it. But a parliament-commissioned report put much of the blame on Mr Haarde and his government, saying that officials “lacked both the power and the courage to set reasonable limits to the financial system”.
It was up to MPs whether to indict those officials. After heated debate, Mr Haarde was referred to the special court. Legal experts say such a vote makes the road ahead particularly rocky.
“This whole scenario has demonstrated that we need to change the system,” said Robert Spano, law professor at the University of Iceland.
Politicians were not trained in determining if there was an adequate basis for prosecution, he said. The financial crisis – which he likened to “a national natural disaster created by humans” had emotional connotations for Icelanders and politicians alike, which could have affected the vote, he added.
The vote exposed a deep divide among Icelandic MPs. Ultimately, parliament voted 33-30 to pursue charges again Mr Haarde, but not against three other members of his government.
Mr Haarde pleaded not guilty and has sought to have all charges dismissed, calling the proceedings “preposterous”. He has insisted Icelanders’ interests were his “guiding light” and blamed the banks for the crisis, saying government officials and regulatory authorities tried their best to prevent the crisis and that his “conscience is clear”.
A last-ditch attempt by Mr Haarde’s independence party to have the charges dropped was rejected last week in parliament and the case was given the green light to move forward.
Robert Wade, a professor of political economy at the London School of Economics, argued for “accountability at the top of the system”.
“In the public mood, there’s a fair bit of sympathy that it is somehow unfair to put Haarde on trial on his own,” he said, noting that he expected Mr Haarde to beat the charges.
“But it’s better that somebody go on trial than nobody, because there was very clear ministerial irresponsibility.”
The special court will consist of 15 members – five supreme court justices, a district court president, a constitutional law professor and eight people chosen by parliament.
The court was founded to deal with criminal charges against Icelandic government ministers.