How a rare murder in Iceland has chilled a nation

Icelandic crime. Shutterstock

Events in Iceland at the start of 2017 were eerily reminiscent of Nordic noir. Iceland in January. It is bleak, cold and dark. A young woman goes missing. Soon a national search operation is underway. Citizens are asked to check their gardens and outbuildings. How can someone just disappear from this peaceful, tight knit, low-crime community?

Sadly, eight days later, the body of 20-year-old Birna Brjánsdóttir was found. The missing person case has become a murder case. It is a tragic tale, reminiscent of those by Arnaldur Indriðason, Iceland’s foremost crime novelist, which has both gripped and mobilised this small island nation.

Birna Brjánsdóttir. EPA/REYKJAVIK METROPOLITAN POLICE

Brjánsdóttir was a young, pretty woman with no seeming connections to crime or other problems. In criminology, this kind of profile which generates particular sympathy is referred to as the “ideal victim”. And it is a scenario that stirs a primeval fear – a loved one who goes missing without a trace. At the same time, the current suspects are classic “outsiders” – or foreigners. Two sailors from Greenland who had docked in Iceland with a Greenlandic trawler. The vessel had already lifted anchor when the case developed and both suspects were flown back to Iceland by police helicopter.

It is a crime which would shock any community. But it is perhaps particularly shocking for the nation of Iceland as a whole. Iceland is known for its egalitarianism in a way that seems difficult to comprehend for most outsiders. Icelanders think of themselves as similar, kindred, and have a strong sense of community. Unemployment is low: everybody counts.

Historically, life in Iceland required high levels of human cooperation. With short summers and bitterly cold winters, it was all hands to the pump to secure survival. Icelanders think of themselves as inclusive, inventive, and resilient. To a surprising extent, the Icelandic self image is of one extended family with little social distance, class or other dividing lines. The lines to those in power are short.

When an event like this murder happens, it feels as if everyone has lost a daughter or sister, including those in power. Heartfelt condolences from the president of Iceland and the prime minister were issued.

Iceland is peaceful. Even in times of great upheaval, such as when it gained independence from Denmark in 1944, no blood was ever shed. The aftermath of the global financial crash that brought Iceland’s economy to its knees in 2008 led to a “pots and pans revolution” that was noisy (demonstrators banged kitchenware) but peaceful. Iceland has no standing army and its police are unarmed.

In addition, Iceland is a low crime country. The annual murder rate averages just 1.8 murders a year. There have been years without a single homicide, 2008 being the most recent one. And when murders do occur, they are mostly the results of intoxicated fights or family feuds. Unsolved murder cases, so-called murder mysteries, are almost unheard of.

Murder in a cold climate

Perhaps as a result, the prison rate in Iceland is one of the lowest in Europe. Prisons, which are few and far between, are small, benign, but also underfunded. No more than about 150 prisoners are serving time on any day in a total of six prisons. Only last year, the first purpose-built modern security prison, Hólmsheiði, opened while two older facilities were closed down. The prison system contains humanitarian elements with a focus on education and family visits. Family visits for a whole weekend are possible in the new facility, and open prisons are part and parcel of the system. This is quite reminiscent of the Norwegian prison system which is frequently lauded as Europe’s most enlightened. The Iceland prison service’s claim to fame is the imprisonment of numerous bankers, further to the global financial crash.

But the current murder case places the Iceland police in the spotlight. Cases such as this are make or break in terms of public confidence in the police and Iceland is no different. The police worked in conjunction with the media to galvanise the public. It seems that the investigation used CCTV, forensic analysis, appeals to the public and there was swift action when evidence emerged.

This is important. People in Iceland have long memories and older citizens will think back to events in 1974 when two men, Guðmundur Einarsson and Geirfinnur Einarsson (no relation) went missing in separate incidents 43 years ago. Although six people were convicted for their murders, there is widespread and enduring unease about the case, with suggestions of a miscarriage of justice through coerced false confessions. The bodies of both men have never been found.

This history elevates the importance of the Brjánsdóttir case even more. If there is a swift resolution to this case it will have been achieved the Icelandic way – by cooperation between police, media, forensic science, and, most importantly, the community. Whereas the crime is entirely at odds with life on this cold and windy Island on the edge of Europe, its successful resolution may just reinforce the community spirit that continues to exist here.

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