Updated 7:16 pm, August 23, 2012
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By Tony Connelly, RTE Europe Editor, in Oslo
On a tiny island with 600 people there aren’t too many places to hide. Vegard Groslie Wennesland, a 28-year-old member of the Norwegian Labour Party’s youth wing was lucky enough to find sanctuary in a cabin with around 40 others when Anders Breivik started his murderous assault on scores of teenagers, the youngest victim just 14 years old.
“I saw him kill several people,” he recalls just over one year on. “We just started to run and he fired at us. He fired through the windows into the cabin and then moved on. If he had got in the death toll could have been so much higher.”
Breivik’s trial lasted 10 weeks. During the proceedings the Norwegian authorities were scrupulous in upholding every aspect and nicety of the country’s justice system, even to the point where prosecutors shook hands with the man who executed teenagers in cold blood on Utoya Island, and at point blank range.
“One girl saw him and thought he was a policeman,” Vegard recalls. “She went up to him and said that his uniform was frightening the other children. He shot her in the head.”
For Vegard Wennesland, whose father was posted as a diplomat to Dublin in the 1980s, the most important thing has been that the country did not lower its democratic and judicial standards even in the face of such monstrous killing.
The bomb and gun attack which took place on July 22 last year was Norway’s worst atrocity since World War II and arguably the world’s worst ever mass shooting outside wartime. The Utoya Labour Party summer camp was an annual event, normally attended by the Norwegian prime minister Jens Stoltenberg.
“There were political workshops, discussions on different political issues,” says Vegard. “But it was really a social event. There was volleyball, soccer tournaments, speed dating. These were kids aged 14 to those in their 20s.”
Breivik’s political world view, expressed in a lurid 1,500 page manifesto posted online before the massacre, meant that teenagers enjoying the first stirrings of summer romance were legitimate targets on a massive scale. During the trial he called them “cultural Marxists”, supporters of “multiculturalism”, who were entitled to die because they were somehow responsible for an “invasion” of Muslims.
Attending the trial for 41 out of 43 days was Freddy Lie. A truck driver from the small fjord-side town of Halden, 90 minutes to the south of Oslo, he was at home when his 16-year-old daughter Elizabeth phoned in an agitated state. “The phone call lasted two minutes and seven seconds. Then she was shot,” Freddy told RTE News.
One bullet passed through Elizabeth’s head, shattering her phone on the other side as she was in mid conversation.
“To me he is nothing,” says Freddy, when I asked him about how he coped with watching Breivik throughout the trial. “I have deleted him from the computer.”
Freddy’s other daughter, Cathrina, now 18, was shot in the back and arm, the first bullet producing a massive exit wound in her chest. She endured three weeks in intensive care and underwent seven operations. The treatment eventually saved her life, but left her with a one metre 22cm scar.
“She is physically better,” says Freddy, “but mentally and emotionally she is up and down from one day to the next. They were best friends.”
Freddy is adamant that Breivik should never be released from prison. If he is found guilty but insane Breivik will be imprisoned in a psychiatric unit for treatment and it is regarded as unlikely that he will be released, although his condition will be assessed every three years.
If he is declared criminally responsible and mentally stable then under Norwegian law the sentence will be 21 years. However, the government will be able to extend the detention for periods of 5 years if he is still considered a danger to society.
“The important thing is that he is never released,” says Freddy.
Norway is still coming to terms with the massacre. A 500-page report by an 11-person commission into how the authorities responded to the bomb and gun attack, was highly critical of the police response. An eye-witness to the bombing of a government building which preceeded the island shooting spree, who saw Breivik escaping in a police uniform, contacted police with the registration number of his vehicle, but the information wasn’t acted upon for two hours.
In that time Breivik was able to drive to the island and shoot 69 people. Further police blunders included the grounding of the country’s only police helicopter because the crew was on holiday and the over-loading of a police boat, preventing an elite anti-terror squad from reaching the island quickly.
“Breivik’s killing rate was one person per minute,” says Jan Egeland, a former deputy foreign minister and currently head of Human Rights Watch. “It’s possible some of those who were killed might have survived if the police had acted quicker. The reality is that the police in Norway are good at dealing with Friday night drunkeness, but not mass murder.
“[Norway] is like Ireland without the troubles. It is a small place, far away from the world’s wars. The murder rate was something like one a week. Breivik managed to kill 77 in four hours.”