An Apology Nine Years in the Making

May 30, 2011
By Matthew Robertson, The Epoch Times
Governments don’t often apologize. Iceland made an exception recently though, when Foreign Minister Össur Skarphéðinsson said he was sorry for the way that Falun Gong practitioners were treated when they tried to visit the country in 2002.


At that time authorities issued a ban against practitioners of the spiritual discipline from entering the country, to coincide with the state visit of then leader of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Jiang Zemin.


Icelandic authorities then distributed a blacklist obtained from Chinese regime intelligence services, and carried out harassment and interrogations against Falun Gong practitioners on the island in an attempt to prevent protests.


“I can on behalf of the Icelandic government, here, from this chair, ask those that came at this time and suffered violations in this way to accept an apology,” Skarphéðinsson told the Althingi, Iceland’s Parliament on May 27.


He added that he thought it was wrong from the beginning, adding: “I can only say to finish it once and for all, that I am ready on behalf of the Icelandic government to apologize to those that were affected at that time.”


He was responding to a detailed question that he had been alerted to beforehand, asked during “impromptu question time,” when regular MPs are allowed to quiz Cabinet ministers.


“I am glad the minister has finally apologized,” wrote Herman Salton, an academic who wrote a book on the events of 2002, in an e-mail interview with The Epoch Times. “I am just surprised it took so long.”


He added: “This apology finally brings the Icelandic authorities into line with the will of the people of Iceland, who from the very beginning opposed this discriminatory, ill-conceived and utterly counterproductive ban.”


Ragnar Aðalsteinsson, a well-known human rights lawyer on the island who took an interest in the case from the beginning, was pleased with the result. “Well, you know, it’s a very late apology,” he first said, adding that he was “frankly quite happy” about it. “It’s late, but better late than never,” he said in the telephone interview.


The ban and blacklist in 2002 was widely recognized as anathema to Iceland’s political tradition and character. The country prides itself on its civic institutions, robust liberal democratic values, and openness (the mayor of Reykjavík, Jón Gnarr, is a former comedian, for example, and the story goes that Icelanders know one another by their first names).


At the time, thousands protested the treatment of Falun Gong practitioners, including a June 22 activity that attracted 1,500–3,000 people. This was “the largest political demonstration in recent memory on the small North Atlantic island,” Reuters reported at the time.


The extent of locals’ resistance to their government’s orders makes the Falun Gong incident an important part of Iceland’s modern history, Salton writes in his book.


Jiang’s visit to Iceland was the first by a Chinese head of state. The Iceland government was eager to bolster its diplomatic and especially business ties, so as to get a piece of the China market for exporters. Reykjavík, the capital, also had the notion that being friendly with China would help get the country onto the U.N. Security Council.


Falun Gong involves doing five sets of meditative exercises and living according to the principles of truthfulness, compassion, and tolerance. First taught publicly in 1992 in China, it rapidly grew very popular. According to Chinese state sources, between 70 and 100 million Chinese practiced Falun Gong in early 1999.


Jiang had initiated a sweeping persecution against the practice in 1999, after perceiving its popularity and independence as a threat. He did not want to see or hear about Falun Gong during his time in Iceland, and local authorities went out of their way to make this wish a reality.


Practitioners were identified with the help of a Chinese blacklist, which was sent to Icelandic Embassies abroad and to the country’s airline Icelandair. Those identified as Falun Gong believers had their visas canceled or were stopped from boarding incoming flights. Chinese and “Asian-looking” people were siphoned from the lines at airports, shepherded into rooms, and questioned about their spiritual beliefs.


Soon after the foreign minister’s apology a civil servant told the Iceland press that the racial-profiling he did at the time was the “most disgusting” task he had been asked to engage in in his career.


Chinese agents were also allowed into Iceland and were allowed a free hand to block Falun Gong practitioners’ protests, infiltrate their events, have their hotel reservations canceled, and in some cases carry out violence.


Most Icelanders perceived the Falun Gong ban as a “direct threat to their own freedom of expression and their country’s independence,” Salton wrote in his book.


Their shock hardened into a determination to protest. “Falun Gong stopped being a Chinese national issue and collided headfirst with Iceland’s values of freedom of expression and self-determination, transforming a tranquil place into a broiling pot of social activism and protest culture,” Salton wrote.


On June 11, the newspaper Morgunblaðið ran a full page ad from 550 citizens, including two who are now the current prime minister and foreign minister, condemning the government’s decision. “WE APOLOGIZE”, it said, for the “incomprehensible actions of the Icelandic authorities.”


And despite his best attempts, Jiang was dogged by protesters throughout his visit. Most of the time they were Icelanders who did not practice Falun Gong. At one time they yelled “Falun Dafa is Good!” within earshot—Salton reports that Jiang threatened to leave immediately after that.


Þórdís Hauksdóttir is one of a small group of Falun Gong practitioners in Iceland. “Oh, it’s absolutely wonderful that they have finally, at last, given an official apology from a minister,” she said in reaction to the news.


The foreign minister had spoken in answer to a question by Margrét Tryggvadóttir, a member of the political party called “The Movement.” Tryggvadóttir had consulted closely on the matter with Birgitta Jónsdóttir, an activist-politician. The two planned the question together.


Tryggvadóttir alerted the foreign minister to the fact that she would be publicly probing him about the incident a few hours before the question—he then alerted the prime minister, according to people familiar with the course of events.


After the foreign minister spoke the prime minister, Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir, gave a discreet thumbs-up and smile to someone in the hall, the video recording shows.


Tryggvadóttir was allowed a follow-up question to the foreign minister after his first response. She asked if he could make it more official.


“Madam president,” he said. “I believe there is no more sincere and formal a manner to ask … for an apology from the government than over the chair of the Parliament, which the government has to answer to.”




To read the article on The Epoch Times website, click here.