by Zoe Harding

Trigger Warnings: Islamaphobia, casual Ableism

Last week, an infamous mass-murdering terrorist was granted repayment of his legal costs and a court-enforced relaxing of the conditions under which he is imprisoned for the killing of 77 people. In her ruling, Judge Helen Andenaes Sekulic agreed with his claims of inhuman treatment and reminded us that the European Convention on Human Rights states that the right to not be treated inhumanely applies to all people, therefore including ‘terrorists and killers’ under its protection.

Breivik has been a consistent headache for Norway’s judicial system since he surrendered to police on the Norwegian island of Utøya after shooting 69 students for the unforgivable crime of supporting Labour. This followed an accompanying bomb attack against a government building in Oslo that killed 8. From refusing to recognise the court’s authority at the start of his trial to complaining constantly about his lack of access to a PlayStation 3 once in prison, and claiming that microwaved prison food was ‘worse than waterboarding’, Breivik has certainly tested the Norwegian courts’ patience. Last September Breivik even threatened a hunger strike, though the media thankfully seemed to have little interest in publicising a mass murderer’s one-man campaign against cold coffee and old video games.

Breivik was ‘sane’ when he carried out his attack, and the state should in no way be deliberately damaging his mental health – that’s definitely cruel and unusual punishment.

I’m getting carried away. It’s very easy to be scornful and dismissive of Breivik’s reaction to his treatment in prison. From a right-wing point of view, he’s in prison to be punished for the murder of seventy-seven innocent people, and should be thankful he’s not suffering worse. Even from a progressive point of view, while he shouldn’t be unduly punished, it feels like he should be in for some fairly solid rehabilitation that doesn’t involve the government buying him new PlayStations or letting him take a political science course by correspondence at Oslo University (mainly to spare some poor tutor from having to mark his rambling 1,500 page manifesto (trigger warnings for Islamophobia, hate speech, and plenty of inane ramblings about ‘the muslims’)). Almost nobody can argue that Breivik isn’t being treated with astonishing leniency given his crimes and his insufferable faux-heroic attitude.


Judge Helen Andenaes Sekulic described the right not to be subjected to inhuman treatment as ‘a fundemental value in a democratic society

(Lise Åserud / NTB scanpix)


But let’s take a step back here, and look at this case from a more dispassionate point of view.

As mentioned, Breivik’s case revolved around the idea that his punishment is ‘inhumane’ and/or exceptional within Norway’s prison system, and it certainly is. He’s kept in solitary confinement, visited only by professional psychiatrists, lawyers and guards, in a three-cell complex all to himself with no interaction with other prisoners. His cell is astonishingly comfortable by the standards of the rest of the world’s prisons, but he is still alone and unable to interact with anyone who’s not being paid to guard or rehabilitate him, and even then he only talks to them through a thick glass barrier or while in heavy restraints. Breivik is allowed visits from family and close friends, but thus far only his mother has briefly visited him once. He’s kept in the cells for 22-23 hours a day, and in addition is deprived of sleep, woken up regularly, and subjected to overly frequent strip searches. These conditions are partly for his own safety – one inmate at the same prison apparently made it to his door and threatened to kill him – but it’s hard not to see them as deliberate actions to ‘punish’ him beyond the scope of what the law allows. It’s old-fashioned, Gene Hunt, Sam Vimes ‘ginger beer trick’ policing of a sort that’s sometimes romanticised in fiction but which in reality is counter-productive in rehabilitating prisoners. Breivik has claimed that his mental health has suffered as a result of long hours in solitary, although in true Breivik fashion he did so by claiming that his enjoyment of the reality TV show ‘Paradise Hotel’ indicated ‘clear evidence of serious brain damage caused by isolation.’ The danger here is that if his conditions actually do breach the European human rights laws that he’ll become a martyr or a symbol for others with similar ideologies- something the Norwegian government is already doing their level best to prevent. In addition, as ruled by the court, Breivik was ‘sane’ when he carried out his attack, and the state should in no way be deliberately damaging his mental health – that’s definitely cruel and unusual punishment.

Image: BBC R4

But let’s remember that these are the complaints of a narcissistic mass-murdering Nazi. Norway is being astonishingly lenient given the treatment of other prisoners even in the European Union, and it’s likely the isolation would not be enforced to this extent were it not necessary for Breivik’s safety and the safety of others. However, in slanting the tone of his incarceration towards punishment rather than rehabilitation, Norway will do little to deter others and possibly even play into Breivik’s ‘Western European Resistance Fighter’ rhetoric, becoming the evil, repressive government he seems to want them to be.

There is something insidiously, entertainingly pathetic about Breivik’s continued complaints. His ridiculous martyr act is a sign that he desperately needs to find something to genuinely complain about. The pettiness of his vocalisations thus far thoroughly discredit the ideology he’s trying to support, pushing the Norwegian government and the survivors of his attack ever more firmly onto their pre-existing position on the moral high ground despite the actually cruel and unusual punishments he’s been subjected to. Try as he might, Breivik is only worsening his position and making it even more impossible for him to engender sympathy from the general public. This was most firmly evidenced when The Local quoted Freddy Lie, father of one of the Utøya victims, as ‘Finding it hard to listen to the ‘complaints’ of the man who killed his 16-year-old daughter Elisabeth on Utøya.’ He did add that ‘This is a state of law. Everyone has the right to be heard,’ but that first quote most likely overshadows the second, and reflects how Breivik’s incessant complaining is only digging the hole he’s in ever deeper.

Featured Image: (Lise Åserud / NTB scanpix)


  1. Some good points in this article. I think we should be looking away from the punishment model of incarceration if we do not want to end up like the United States. I like the way Jerry Coyne talks about the issue.


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