Two days ago, Eva Joly, the Norwegian-French magistrate hired to advise the Icelandic government on the current [colossal] investigation into the bank collapse, threatened to pull out of the investigation unless two very clear conditions were met. One, that the State Prosecutor step down, as he is unfit on familial grounds [his son is an executive in one of the holding companies affiliated with the banks]. Two, that the Office of the Special Investigator into the bank collapse be substantially strengthened and that the number of prosecutors be increased from one to three. Yesterday the Icelandic nation held its breath while it waited for the government’s response to those stipulations. Yesterday evening it was announced that there was agreement in parliament that the government would do everything in its power to ensure that Mme Joly gets the facilities she needs to continue her work. As the nation let out a collective sigh of relief, Eva Joly kindly agreed to sit down with us for a chat.
IWR: Two days ago you set two very clear conditions for continuing your work here in Iceland. Yesterday the government announced that they would fully cooperate with you. Are you satisfied that your demands have been met?
EJ: Yes I am. There was substantial progress made yesterday and I definitely feel as though my request was heard and that the government understood the gravity of the situation. The State Prosecutor [Valtýr Sigurðsson] offered to withdraw from this specific case and for another prosecutor to be put in his place for this particular matter, but I feel that this is not satisfactory. He is no doubt very good at what he does but unfortunately he is unfit to act as State Prosecutor due to his family connections. Setting an ad hoc prosecutor for this case only would not work because we need access to his entire office, not only individual people within that office. This is the most important legal case ever for Iceland and probably will be for years to come, and it is absolutly vital that it is done right. And I am happy to say that the Icelandic authorities have given me a guarantee today that this matter will be settled.
Concerning my second condition, there was agreement among the government today to increase funding for the special prosecutor’s office, which is absolutely essential. This investigation simply cannot be carried out by one prosecutor. We need at least three. If we attempted to carry it out with one prosecutor it would take far too long and also there is a limit to what one human being can do, what one human brain can hold. I know this from my own experience in working on a similar case [the Elf affair, which propelled Joly into the international spotlight].
You must understand that this investigation is absolutely huge. It incorporates many different chapters. We need teams to perform the work, and we need a leader for each team that is autonomous in carrying out the investigation and who can prosecute, although one prosecutor can oversee the investigation as a whole. So increased funding will allow us to recruit more staff and to begin to strengthen the office, which has been having all sorts of problems – problems with premises, with manpower, and so on. We need to recruit all kinds of people – accountants, lawyers, secretaries and people to run the office. And it is absolutely essential for us to have three prosecutors so we can start taking cases to court.
IWR: Your involvement in this investigation really gives many people here in Iceland a feeling of hope and security, and they cannot bear the thought of you resigning. Do you think this is fair to you?
EJ: Well, I think it would be unforgivable for me to give people a sense of security if I didn’t deliver on the confidence they have in me. Which is why I am setting these conditions. I may seem very harsh, but there must be something solid behind my presence here. I must not be used to give people a false sense of security. And I can’t give people security unless certain conditions are met.
IWR: What exactly does your work here in Iceland consist of?
EJ: I’m here every two weeks, for two days at a time – although it’s four days out of my work week, as there are two full days required for travel. I work closely on the investigation with the team here in Iceland, who are all very skilled and good people. These visits will now be less regular, however, until the changes I have requested have been made and the office has resolved some of its organizational issues and is up and running.
IWR: In the interview you gave to Kastljós two days ago you expressed your view that this investigation is the most important investigation ever in Europe. You also said that it is five times more important than your investigation into the Elf affair, which was a groundbreaking investigation at the time. On what do you base that assessment?
EJ: I base it on the number of cases that have already been established by the Financial Supervisory Authority, and what I already know about the investigation. I see the makings of a huge investigation. It is very significant, it extends across borders, but unfortunately I cannot be more specific, otherwise I, too, would become unfit to carry out the investigation.
IWR: A major concern among the Icelandic public has been that so much time has passed since the bank collapse that the trail may have been lost – that evidence may have been destroyed, documents shredded, and so on. What are your views?
EJ: It is true that much time has passed, but the trail has not necessarily been lost. Economic crimes are very specific and clues exist about where the money has gone, even a long time after the fact.
IWR: When the investigation was getting underway it seemed that bank secrecy laws were very stringent here in Iceland and might be hindering the investigation. Is that still the case?
EJ: Bank secrecy laws are not an issue, because they cannot be opposed to a criminal investigation.
IWR: How long do you envision that this investigation will take?
EJ: Years. I’m guessing at perhaps a five-year time frame. We also want to deviate from the norm a little in that we want to emphasize communication with the general public, to keep the public informed. Prosecutors generally don’t like to communicate too much; however, this is an exceptional case, and it calls for exceptional measures.
IWR: You are very busy. What made you agree to take on this investigation?
EJ: I think that this situation is so terrible for Iceland and I found it revolting that people were losing their pensions and the public was being made to pay for years of immoral conduct by a handful of people. I thought that if my expertise in this field could be of some help, then I was willing to find the time. I was also touched by the amazing response of the Icelandic people, how they demonstrated their wish to have me come on board to help. [After Eva Joly’s appearance on the talk show Silfur Egils last winter there was a flood of petitions to the government to hire her as an adviser. Blogs buzzed, a Facebook group was immediately established that some 2,500 people joined in a 24-hour period, and MPs were inundated with emails.] I also feel very close to the culture here, because of my [Norwegian] origins, and so I felt a sense of kinship. I also saw this as an opportunity to maintain my investigative skills by doing practical work again, since I have not been involved in an investigation since 2002. Finally I believe that what I will see here will enhance my perspective as a member of the European Parliament, so that I can help set proper laws. [Eva Joly was elected to the European Parliament last Sunday.]
IWR: In an interview on Silfur Egils last winter you mentioned that there was added pressure internationally on secrecy to be lifted in tax havens. Have you seen any progress on that?
EJ: Tax havens and bank secrecy were big issues at a recent meeting of the G20 states and when I was running for the European Parliament I promised that I would look into and work on the issue of tax havens. There is international pressure now on tax havens to lift their secrecy laws, and this particular investigation in Iceland is very symbolic in that regard.
IWR: In all the interviews I’ve seen with you on this subject, you have emphasized the necessity of carrying out this investigation so that the Icelandic nation can come to terms with what happened, and move on. Why do you feel the investigation is so important in that regard?
EJ: I am simply drawing on what I have seen happen in other countries that have experienced similar calamities. What happened here is a catastrophe, and in order for the nation to be able to overcome the trauma it is vital to assign responsibility. You have to remember that the judicial system is simply a way of treating emotion in a legal way. It was built up around this need in humans to feel satisfied that responsibility has been assigned and those culpable have been brought to justice. In ancient times we had vendettas, now we have the law.
It is vital for the nation to have this sort of satisfaction, because if this need is not satisfied a deep rift will be created in society and there is a danger of a breakdown in the social contract. People will begin to have thoughts like, ‘Why should I have to pay taxes when others have not had to pay?’ That sort of dissolution in society is very dangerous.
IWR: There has been much discussion in Iceland about freezing the assets of those who have been instrumental in creating this mess. Is that a viable option?
EJ: Yes, it is viable to freeze assets, but first it must be established what the offenses were, who benefited from them, and so on. After that, assets can begin to be confiscated.
IWR: Finally a somewhat unrelated question: as a newly-elected member of the European Parliament, are you of the opinion that Iceland should apply for membership to the European Union?
EJ: That is a very important question. I think it is very dangerous to attempt to operate a single currency in a country with 300,000 inhabitants. So it is quite clear to me that having the euro would be of huge benefit and protection for you. But on the other hand, you have to consider the cost, for your sovereignty and your democracy. I really can’t give any advice on that – it is out of my jurisdiction. But I do believe in Europe being an instrument of peace and civilization. If had not been for the EU we would have had another war after World War II. The EU managed to create peace between Germany, England, France, Italy, Spain, to integrate those cultures.
It would not be a problem for Iceland to become a member of the EU as you have already integrated the vast majority of the regulations and directives [being a member of the European Economic Area]. Iceland has a longstanding democratic culture and as a member of the EU you would reinforce the Nordic part of Europe and its understanding of democracy. I think it would be good for Europe to have you.