It was two years ago during Reykjavík Pride that Elínborg Harpa Önundardóttir was arrested, which Elínborg believes was because of their involvement in protests in solidarity with people seeking asylum in Iceland and against deportations. Now, they have been found guilty of disobeying police orders and have been sentenced to a two month probationary prison sentence, standing for two years, as well as more than one million ISK in legal fees. GayIceland spoke with Elínborg—who has since come out as trans-masculine and non-binary—about the incident, their connection to the queer community, and moving forward.
First, how did Elínborg get involved in activism? “My family was quite a ‘normal’ family, as in rather mainstream. I would describe them as Social Democrats. I think I got affiliated with radical politics when I was in my last year of my philosophy degree. I’m not really sure what happened, but I guess I was reading more radical philosophers like Michel Foucault, some feminists theorists such as de Beauvoir, together with existentialism. I started to think about freedom a lot—freedom of the individual, justice and responsibility, and what this all means.
“I appealed my case to the land court, and I’m going to defend myself. I’m going to be my own lawyer.”
From there, I started looking for answers to these questions, not only in texts, but also in real life. This led me to groups that organize in the spirit of anarchism(s). I got to know people who were involved in radical, horizontal political organizing, had conversations with them, and one thing led to another and I started being a bit more active in what they were doing at the time.”
They soon became involved in groups such as No Borders Iceland, which supports asylum seekers and refugees and protests Iceland’s policy of deportation.
“When you get to know people who are refugees and asylum seekers, then you really see how messed up the European system and the Icelandic system is. Then you can’t go back, you can’t really look away. I also connected the violence that is happening to people seeking protection in Western countries with white privilege and white supremacy. I thought as a white person, I also have a role to play and a responsibility to take. For me, if you don’t want to support a system like that, you have to fight it. If you don’t actively fight against it, I think you’re complicit.”
Elínborg emphasizes that refugees and asylum seekers in Iceland continue to face serious challenges and discrimination.
“Recently 18 refugees were illegally made homeless and without all services and financial support. This was done by the Immigration Office and defended by the Minister of Justice,” they say. “They were homeless for over a month and the public in Iceland took people into their homes. One person was homeless from the end of March until the middle of June.
They are not able to use the homeless shelters since they do not have kennitala (a national ID number ),” Elínborg adds. “In mid-June the appeals board confirmed that this treatment goes against the law, so now people are pressing for the head of the Immigration Department, Þorsteinn Gunnarsson, and Áslaug Arna, Minister of Justice to resign from their positions. One of the people put to the street is disabled and needs personal assistance in everyday life. This makes him extra vulnerable in the situation of being homeless and without financial resources.”
“I guess it’s quite recent for me to be identifying as trans non-binary. It’s been for a little bit over a year with my closest friends and some of my family.”
In 2019, Elínborg was involved in demonstrations to protest deportations of people who had been denied asylum from Iceland. One of these actions was a sit-in protest in the lobby of the Ministry of Justice, and another was a peaceful demonstration in front of the Parliament building. It was for their involvement in these protests that Elínborg believes they were arrested at the 2019 Pride parade. But what were the circumstances around their arrest?
“It seemed to have been their intention to arrest me all along, and the Pride organizers were full participants, if not responsible. I saw in the police reports that the organizers of Pride had contacted the police and had a special meeting with police explaining that they were afraid for the safety of the march because of me and some other comrades. That was the biggest slap in the face.
I also didn’t feel support from the Icelandic queer community at all, other than from my friends. In general it seemed like the queer community didn’t really care, or didn’t see it as a big deal. At least not until a year later, when I decided to talk a bit more about the experience, and then I got some support from organizations like Samtökin ’78 and Trans Ísland. But the Pride committee themselves, they never really showed me any interest and have denied all my requests of accountability.”
Elínborg is trans and non-binary, and as a member of the queer community themself, they say this lack of apology and responsibility from the Pride committee was what hurt the most. “They lost allof my trust, and a lot of my longing to work with the greater queer community in Iceland also diminished,” they say.
“I guess it’s quite recent for me to be identifying as trans non-binary. It’s been for a little bit over a year with my closest friends and some of my family. Now I’m more open, and I’m gaining some self-esteem and self-trust to talk about it and explore this part of my identity.”
Elínborg say they felt incredibly supported after coming out. “That’s the privilege of being and belonging to radical clusters, here in Iceland at least. A lot of my friends are queer, a few of them are trans. So there was a big support network, and everyone was really happy that I was making this discovery about myself. I’m not sure if I would have been able to do this without the fights that trans people here in Iceland have been doing for the past decades. It’s really impressive, and I’m really proud of them and I admire them a lot. I don’t think it’s been an easy fight at all.”
Now, Elínborg is facing their own fight. After being arrested in 2019, their case has been winding through the courts. What is the status of their case now?
“There were seven people who were arrested in 2019, and six of us were charged. We’re all charged with breaking Article 19 of the police law. This article basically says that you should obey the police whenever the police gives an order. It applies a lot to traffic law. In our case, we were protesting very calmly. For example, at the Parliament we were doing a protest where we had tape over our mouths and written on our hands ‘stop deportations.’ We were standing in front of the main door of the Parliament, and people could get in and out, but they had to walk past us. Then the police shows up and tell us to stop protesting at the place we were standing and to move. When we don’t move—because we consider the right to protest and the freedom of speech to be higher than some random police law for traffic controls—we were arrested.
In the court there was no consideration at all of, was the order necessary? Was there any other way they could have dealt with this? Were the protesters actually creating danger, were they really creating chaos? It seemed to just be enough for the police to come as a witness and to say, ‘Yes, we said the order very loud and clear and everybody heard it, and no they did not obey.’ This was basically the extent of the trial.
“For me, if you don’t want to support a system like that, you have to fight it.”
All of us except for one person has been to court and our hearings are over. We’ve all been found guilty. I appealed my case to the land court, and I’m going to defend myself. I’m going to be my own lawyer, because I couldn’t find a lawyer with a suitable permit who was willing to work with me for an amount that I could imagine my community paying. In the end, it’s the fines that really get you. You have to put a lot of energy into financing these court cases. And this is energy that could go into so much else. I guess that’s one of the goals of the state, to distract you from what you were doing by making you go through the court system.”
Elínborg and the others charged under Article 19 believe the application of this law contravenes their right to protest and expression. “The police are using this regulation to arrest protesters and stop protests,” they say. “It’s really serious and it should be stopped. That’s why we’ve decided to turn our defense into an offense, and try to bring charges against the regulation. We are taking the cases that have already been denied by the land court to the Human Rights Court in Strasbourg. We’re hoping that this is the first time Article 19 will be tried by the Strasbourg court, if they accept it.”
This time around, they’re hoping that Iceland’s queer community will stand by their side and support them through the process.