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Inside the Breivik trial

The prosecution has deconstructed Breivik’s elaborate fantasies.

New Statesman
Right-wing extremist Anders Behring Breivik arrives inside room 250 of the central court in Oslo on April 20, 2012. Photograph: Getty Images.

In Britain he would already be in Broadmoor. Here, Anders Behring Breivik, 33, who killed 77 in a gruesome bombing and shooting spree last July, is in only the first week of a ten week trial.

Most people in this proudly liberal country are commendably committed to this due legal process (any person who faces the prospect of a ten year sentence or more, must be given a full trial regardless of his plea). Though many fear he is being given a platform to voice his violently anti-immigrant views. Norway’s tradition of non-confrontational advocacy means he has not even faced the kind of Anglo-Saxon adversarial court many of the bereaved families would have wished.

There is no vow; no legal obligation for a defendant to tell the truth – nor even answer the questions posed. This partly explains the gentle, almost consensual, approach prosecutors here take to cross-examination. Yet by picking at his inflated self-image, Inga Bejer Engh and Svein Holden, the two youthful public prosecutors, have successfully painted Mr Breivik as a penniless and obsessive loner.

It took Breivik nine years to write his rambling 1,500 page “manifesto” about the deconstruction of Norway. Engh managed, in one forensic afternoon, to deconstruct Breivik’s elaborate fantasies. Pressed on his supposed membership of a shadowy terrorist organisation, the Knights Templar, Breivik was forced to admit his tract which documents the supposed inauguration was pompous and badly written.

“I know what you are trying to do,” he said to her on the first of many occasions. “You are trying to humiliate me.” He sweated and squirmed in his chair as Ms Engh innocently read out a section from the manifesto, in which Breivik claimed he had been approached to found the Knights Templar because he was particularly gifted.

“If I may ask, what is the purpose of this. What you are doing now? What do you want to arrive at? What is the purpose? Your intention is to try to sow doubt into whether this network exists. That is your purpose.”

Reading from the document,  Engh quoted: ““I remember they did a complete screening and background check to ensure I was one of the desired calibre. They were considering several hundred individuals throughout Europe for a training course”

“Before you continue I hope that you will try to ridicule me less and concentrate on the case more,” he said.

Engh replied: “I won’t ridicule you. Don’t get fixated on my opinion because that is not important. We just want you to talk Breivik.”

Breivik has admitted blowing up eight in a car bomb in the centre of Oslo before slaying a further 69, mostly teenage, members of the ruling Labour Party’s youth wing in a shooting spree on the nearby holiday island of Utoya. His guilt is not in doubt. The question for this court is whether or not he is sane. Breivik wishes to be considered so. The prosecution’s case is structured around proving otherwise. Their cause is complicated by the lack of UK-style reporting restrictions, which gives Breivik access to the thoughts and opinions of journalists and commentators who have dissected at length the two prosecutors’ handling of the case.

The pair have become media stars. Their faces are on the cover of newspapers while their tactics and styles are the subject of dozens of pages inside. By turns, ingratiating, derisive, deferential and condescending, the pair have consistently rattled  Brevik. Holden has used a sardonic, mocking tone, particularly when he talked to Breivik about his “sabbatical year” spending 16 hours a day playing World of Warcraft. “You are giving the impression that I moved back home and rented a room in my mother’s house because I had gone bankrupt,” answered Breivik, smarting again at the “humiliation.”

Their strategy has been to expose his fantasies in those parts of his testimony where the defence and prosecution disagree, and hand him rope where they do. For the bereaved families in the court this tactic can be painful. As he spoke with chilling lack of emotion about ending the lives of the children on Utoya, savoured the moment when he was allowed to describe - in painstaking detail - the construction of the bomb which killed eight in the centre of Oslo, then calmly informed the prosecutors that he wished he’d killed more, people in the court openly wept.

Given 70 minutes to read from a prepared statement, comparing his victims on Utoya to Hitler Youth, and telling their grieving parents that their dead children had forgone their innocence when they joined the Labour Party, the counsel for the aggrieved begged the judge to make him stop. Holden urged her to allow him to finish.

They could not have imagined that Breivik would break down and cry himself when he watched his own 12-minute propaganda victory, shown to the court on the afternoon after his diatribe. But the prosecutors’ ability to make him sweat and fidget when they put his fantastic claims from his manifesto under a microscope, then allow him to visibly soar as he describes his grisly deeds, demonstrated his lack of empathy and extreme narcissism almost as effectively.

Mark Lewis is a freelance journalist reporting from the Breivik trial.

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