Lay judges step down over ‘racist comments’

Lay judges step down over 'racist comments'
Lay judges have been accused of racist comments. Photo: Jessica Gow/SCANPIX
Several lay judges appointed by Sweden's third biggest political party, the Sweden Democrats, could face internal investigation and some have been forced to step down after claims they made racist comments online.

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“Some of these comments are unacceptable," party leader Jimmie Åkesson, who is returning to work after months of sick leave, told Swedish tabloid Expressen in an interview published on Thursday.

"If you belong to our party, you don't have these opinions," he added.

Together with the Research Group ('Researchgruppen', a network for investigative journalism), Expressen has carried out an investigation of around 6,000 people, from all parties, who became lay judges at the start of 2015.

Lay judges ('nämndemän') are politically appointed and sit alongside professional judges in first and second tier Swedish courts. Eight members of the nationalist Sweden Democrat party have so far been revealed by Expressen to allegedly have written racist messages online.

One lay judge at Södertörn District Court, who has not yet been involved in any court verdicts, is said to have commented on an article on a Swedish far right anti immigration site about violence in the Rosengård area of Malmö in southern Sweden, “deport the dregs to their rubbish piles of countries”. The man, who also works at the Sweden Democrats' parliament secretariat, has since told Expressen he is going to step down from court, but it is understood he will remain at parliament.

“I have spoken to him and this does not affect our confidence in him. And he has already left the assignment as lay judge,” Henrik Vinge, press secretary for the Sweden Democrats, told Expressen.

But several of the other seven lay judges – some of whom have stepped down from their posts after the report, either voluntarily or asked to by the court – risk facing an internal investigation, he said. Åkesson added they could be expelled from the party if found to have broken its "zero tolerance" policy.

It is not the first time members of Sweden's nationalist party come under fire for allegedly making racist comments online. In January, the Deputy Speaker in parliament was reported to have written on Facebook after the Paris attacks, "the religion of peace shows its face". He later edited the post.

READ MORE: How the Sweden Democrats went mainstream

The vote of a lay judge carries the same weight as a professional judge in court in Sweden. Although normally appointed by political parties, their assignment is apolitical and they must remain neutral in all cases. But the system is not uncontroversial.

Anne Ramberg, general secretary of the Swedish Bar Association ('Advokatsamfundet', a membership organization for practising lawyers in Sweden), described her shock at hearing about the Expressen report in an interview by Swedish Radio earlier this week.

“It is harrowing. That's how you feel when you see these expressions of extremely racist and inhumane descriptions of people who come here,” she said.

Ramberg went on to criticize the current system of appointing lay judges.

“It has always been a system error in the sense that the political parties appoint the lay judges. This has become especially relevant after the Sweden Democrats got up to 25 percent of the vote in some local authorities.”

“A basic principle in a democratic state is that courts enjoy the public's trust. This is dependent on them being independent, impartial and that the jurors have integrity, meaning that you should not mix your political values with your judicial function.”

The Sweden Democrats are the third largest political group in Sweden, scoring a record 12.9 percent of the vote in September's general election. Åkesson has returned to lead the party after a six-month absence due to exhaustion. In an appearance on popular Swedish talk show 'Skavlan' on Friday he revealed he was taking anti depressants and would be returning to work in stages from March 31st.

According to fresh figures by Sifo released on Thursday, only 37 percent of voters think that Åkesson's return to politics will have a positive effect on his party's popularity in the polls.