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Batons and Starlight Tours: Norwegian Police Accused of Breaking Anti-Torture Conventions

Footage of Oslo police forcing a baton down the throat of a West African immigrant triggered an official investigation, which found the practice may breach international prohibitions against "inhuman and degrading treatment."

by Shane Alexander Caldwell
Feb 16 2015, 8:00pm

Image via Shane Alexander Caldwell/Circus Bazaar

On a quiet morning in the suburbs of Oslo, Norway, a man who was suspected of concealing narcotics in his mouth was subjected to a stop and search by Norwegian civil police. During the search, the police handcuffed and held down the man on a public street and used batons to force open his mouth. Using the police baton to dig inside his oral cavity, they performed a brutal forensic search for three minutes, in which no narcotics were ever found. A second patrol was then called and the individual was taken far beyond the city's peripheral highway to an unknown location. The man claims — to the denials of police — that he was "dumped in a forest, called an animal and left without shoes."

It's hard to believe that such practices would be routine in a country like Norway, but according to a controversial new documentary project and an explosive ruling from a state watchdog, it appears that they have become so. On January 27, the Norwegian Bureau for the Investigation of Police Affairs, a government agency, announced that it was set to impose an organizational punishment and fine on Oslo Police District for "gross misconduct in the line of duty." This decision was based on an investigation into the incident involving a West African immigrant, captured on film and published by the website Circus Bazaar, in conjunction with damning assessments from some of Norway's leading human rights experts, who raised the prospect of possible breaches of international anti-torture conventions prohibiting "inhuman and degrading treatment."

Norway. Human Rights Violations. First 2 minutes. from Circus Bazaar Productions on Vimeo.

In a statement released on Monday, the Oslo Police District denied that the method were commonplace. Chief of Police Hans Sverre Sjøvold said that the police force agreed with the criticism of the actions described, but insisted that the investigation had not gathered sufficient evidence to warrant penalties. "The Oslo Police are surprised that the Bureau has concluded that the described actions are practice in the Oslo Police, and therefore punishable for the enterprise," he said, requesting further investigation of the claim.

However the 17-page ruling from the Bureau cites the Oslo Police District itself as having reported that "batons had also previously been used by police to prevent the swallowing of narcotics," and that the chief of police had, after the video emerged, ordered officers "that such use was to cease until the method were approved, if ever." It details statements from the two officers involved in the case, including the claim from Officer A that "he has learned that the mouth is not considered to be one of the cavities of the body" and using the baton "has the smallest risk of injury compared with suffocating or inducing vomiting." Officer A also stated that the method "has been used in Oslo for a long time, and it is not something that he has come up with himself." Both officers claimed that they had "testified on the procedure at court hearings and that this has not been raised as a controversial issue by any party in court."

The Serpent in Paradise - Promo Cut from Circus Bazaar Productions on Vimeo.

The Bureau acknowledges that the method was not taught in police training but "is a procedure that has come about intrinsically based on a need." "According to Officer A, he possibly came to know this method as early as in his internship year in 2005," the report states. 

The Bureau's investigation appeared to suggest that the method was particularly targeted at African immigrants, stating that according to police officer A, "The method has perhaps been more pertinent for the past three years based on the fact that persons of the Nigerian and West African community keep drugs in the mouth."

Nevertheless, the report concludes that "there is no indication that the police conduct was motivated by racism."

The report also criticized the officers' use of a "drive-off," a notorious police practice euphemistically known as a "starlight tour." While acknowledging that police are allowed to remove individuals from an area as a law enforcement tool, it said that the drive-off in question was both unnecessary and went beyond the boundaries of what was permissible, leaving the man "quite far outside" the city limits. 

Human rights experts say that the practice of drive-offs is a long entrenched one. Indeed, the ruling notes that one of the officers responsible in this case was "uncertain as to whether they drove him to one location or the other" and "the reason why he does not remember it so well is because of the vast number of similar assignments." According to official police logs, the man was subject to expulsion from Oslo for 24 hours — though in relation to the Immigration Act, with no mention of the narcotics search.

Norway is developing somewhat of an international reputation for inflicting such practices on ethnic minorities. Rune Berglund Steen, the director of The Norwegian Center against Racism, told VICE News: "The Special Unit of the Police has previously criticized police officers in Oslo Police District for abandoning Roma (gypsies) in deserted areas in conditions where they were at risk of harm. In addition to other concerns this raises over the professional conduct of the police officers involved, it must also raise the question of racism. That a claim of similar treatment is now raised in a case involving another minority is alarming. As a backdrop, one should recall that abandoning African-Americans in the woods is a mode of harassment known from racist groups in the US and even in Norway. "

The last time the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CPT) inspected Norway was in May 2011. Its official report praised the country's police for their treatment of suspects, saying: "The CPT is pleased to note that its delegation received no allegations of deliberate ill-treatment of persons detained by the police nor of excessive use of force at the moment of apprehension, and did not gather any other information to this effect."

The Bureau's ruling concludes, however, that "notes made in the police operations log do not contain any adequate description of the incident" and that as a consequence "the grounds for effectively being able to monitor the police use of force both internally within the police and for external monitors are reduced." The lack of such reports paints a picture in which inspections by international monitors may have been conducted at least partially blind.

It found that the use of the baton could constitute a breach of Norway's own laws on the use of force and the European Human Rights Convention Article 3, prohibiting torture, inhuman and degrading treatment. "The procedure must be characterized as brutal," it said, while the failure of the officers involved to report it indicated "they were of the opinion that the matter was not particularly serious."

But with the Oslo Police District disputing the findings — and, with them, the statements of its own officers — a significant and lengthy public debate seems likely.