THE TRAGIC STORY OF SÆVAR CIESIELSKI Sævar Ciesielski died in Copenhagen on July 13, of accidental causes. He was nothing less than Iceland’s most famous felon. Along with a group of his friends, he was convicted of two murders in 1980, after having been held in custody for a long time. This is the most written and talked about criminal case in Icelandic history, Guðmundar og Geirfinnsmálið (“The case of Guðmundur and Geirfinnur”—after the two alleged victims, whose bodies have never been recovered).
After he was released from jail in 1984, Sævar fought for the case to be reopened. He always professed his innocence, but to no avail. In the last years, Sævar started living the life of a homeless man, staying mostly in Copenhagen. Many think that Sævar and his friends were the victims of a great travesty of justice.
TWO MYSTERIOUS DISAPPEARANCES
Sævar was sentenced for the murders of Geirfinnur Einarsson and Guðmundur Kristjánsson. Both men disappeared without a trace. Guðmundur was never seen again after a night on the town, but the case of Geirfinnur Einarsson was more complicated. Geirfinnur, a resident of the town of Keflavík, came home one night, received a phone call and went out—never to be seen again.
This was November 19, 1974. The case dragged on for years, rousing all sorts of rumours, some of which made it into to the press. At one stage, a prime minister of Iceland even made a fiery speech in Alþingi, denying the connections of his party to the affair. This link was through a nightspot called Klúbburinn, whose owner was a party sponsor. In one of the strangest turns of the case, the owner and three others were arrested and held in custody for more than a hundred days. The theory was that they had been involved in smuggling alcohol with Geirfinnur Einarsson. This was totally unfounded.
ENTER A GERMAN POLICEMAN
The Icelandic police was at its wits end. A medium was even brought in to find the body of Geirfinnur. Finally, the Icelandic government recruited a German policeman to wrap up the case. His name was Karl Schütz. Security matters were his speciality, rather than criminal investigations. He didn’t turn up with new evidence; rather, he rearranged matters so that the solution of the case he presented on February 2, 1977 looked plausible. A nightmare has been lifted from the nation—were the headlines of the newspapers.
Finally Sævar Ciesielski and Kristján Viðar Viðarsson were convicted for both murders while a group of their friends and acquaintances also received sentences for being accessories. Originally Sævar was given a life sentence, but the High Court changed the sentence to 17 years.
NO EVIDENCE, ONLY CONFESSIONS
This should have been the end of that, after years of continuous press coverage. But it was not. Firstly, there were no bodies—neither Geirfinnur nor Guðmundur were ever found (or proven to be deceased). There are no murder weapons. And there was no evidence. For example, no one had seen Sævar or any of his friends in Keflavík on the night of Geirfinnur’s disappearance. Nobody knows if they were there. Guðmundur Kristjánsson might have been killed in a drunken brawl, but in the case of Geirfinnur there was a complete lack of motive.
The cases were “solved” solely by force of confession. It has since been a source of debate as to how these confessions were obtained. The prisoners suffered long periods of isolation, in Sævar’s case almost two years. A former prison guard later revealed how these methods broke the prisoners and drove them mad. Sævar was deprived of sleep, he was not allowed to have reading material, and he might even have been subjected to some forms of torture, such as putting his head under water. So nobody can really know if these confessions hold true or not. The prison guard who finally talked received threats from his fellow guards and policemen.
When Sævar got out of prison he claimed he was innocent. Most of the others who were sentenced with him disappeared into society. They are all alive—they were very young people at the time of the proceedings—except Sævar and a gentle, well liked man called Tryggvi Rúnar Leifsson, who died two years ago from cancer. Tryggvi was sentenced for the murder of Guðmundur Kristjánsson—on his deathbed he is said to have protested his innocence. But Sævar was too famous. He was Iceland’s most notorious criminal. Everybody knew him. In a way he did rather well. He was raised partly in a now infamous institution called Breiðavík, where young boys were almost systematically destroyed, but he managed to found a family for a while and father children. Nobody really knew whether he was guilty of not, and he struggled on.
In 1997, Sævar had gotten so far that the High Court actually deliberated whether to reopen the case. It decided not to—which was a bitter disappointment. The court claimed that there was no new evidence, but surely there was no evidence in the first place! The special prosecutor charged with handling the case at this time was quoted as saying that, whatever the case, these people were no choirboys
A MULTIPLE MISCARRIAGE OF JUSTICE
After the verdict of the High Court, then-Prime Minister Davíð Oddsson made a famous speech in the Alþingi. He talked about a miscarriage of justice—this is maybe as close as Sævar ever got to having his name restored. Davíð said that he had studied the case thoroughly and that grave mistakes had been made at every level. He said he was disappointed by the High Court’s decision, and that it would have been good for the judicial system to review the case—”there was not just one miscarriage of justice, but many, and it is very hard to live with this.”
After this Sævar gradually lost his footing in life. He started drinking heavily and hanging out with men of the street. Finally he became one himself, a homeless drunkard. He was always talkative, lucid, full of ideas—and not violent at all. Sævar never received a real education, but he had a lively intelligence. In the end he left Iceland, living in Copenhagen and Christiania, the old hippy colony in the centre of the city. There are pictures of him, grimy from dirt, with a broken nose and an old hat—some say he looks like Jón Hreggviðsson, the fugitive from Halldór Laxness’ novel ‘Iceland’s Bell’ who was convicted for a crime no one knew whether he had committed or not, and went back and forth from Iceland to Denmark to save his head.
A MAN WITHOUT A COUNTRY
Ultimately, Sævar had no country. It is reported that in the end he was not registered as an Icelandic citizen. A group of Icelanders met him in Christiania a few days before he died. Sævar was staying in a tree house. He introduced himself, but of course they instantly recognised him despite the dirt and the years of hard living. “I was made an outlaw from Iceland,” Sævar told them. “We know, Sævar, we know,” was the interlocutor’s feeble answer. “But anyway, Iceland has sunk,” Sævar added.
A few days later he died of head injuries. He was 56. His funeral will be held in the Cathedral of Reykjavík on August 2. And now that he is dead, there are again demands that his case be reopened or that an investigative committee look into the whole affair. But it is not really likely that this will happen. Formally, it is only the High Court that can decide to review the case. As before there is no new evidence—and probably there never will be. The judicial system does not like to admit mistakes. Thus, we will possibly never know the truth of the matter. But it has to be said that Sævar Ciesielski was, in his quest for what he believed was justice, quite a remarkable figure in his own way.