The Court of Appeal for Western Sweden has overturned the judgement in activist Elin Ersson's case, due to comments one of the lay judges made months before the trial. In February, Ersson was fined Elin Ersson 3,000 kronor ($325) by a district court for breaking aviation law.
The judge described Ersson as a “criminal” in a comment on a news article.
“This statement must be considered as damaging the trust in the lay judge's impartiality in the case,” the court of appeal wrote in a statement.
There were no dissenting opinions when the district court found Ersson guilty, with the exception of the lay judge, a member of the anti-immigration Sweden Democrat party, who had argued for a tougher punishment of 14 days in jail. That judge was removed from his role after the earlier comment came to light, but Ersson appealed the fine.
“The court of appeal's decision isn't surprising. After the statement the lay judge made on social media, there was no possibility for him to be seen as impartial. It's also important that the court of appeal maintains high standards of impartiality in court, even in cases that raise a lot of attention among the public,” Ersson's lawyer Tomas Fridh told the TT newswire.
Swedish courts use lay judges appointed by political parties to help the presiding professional judge. They are not qualified legal professionals and fulfill the role more commonly played by juries in countries like the UK or the US. In district courts three lay judges accompany one professional judge.
While in principle every Swedish citizen over the age of 18 is eligible for nomination, in practice, parties put forward their own members for the positions. By taking the judicial oath lay judges swear not to allow personal political views to influence their decision making, but studies have shown that those political affiliations may nonetheless impact verdicts in criminal cases.
Ersson protested against the Swedish government's policy of not halting deportations to Afghanistan by boarding an Istanbul-bound flight carrying an Afghan man who had been denied asylum. She refused to sit down until he was let off, which meant that the flight could not take off.
She livestreamed her protest on Facebook, where it was viewed over five million times. Eventually, she was told that the man would be let off the plane and she also disembarked.