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Friday, 9 February, 2001, 15:59 GMT
Norway coming to terms with racism
Grieving friends
Benjamin's friends left flowers where he was stabbed
By News Online's Lars Bevanger

The brutal killing of Norwegian teenager Benjamin Hermansen united the Norwegian people in horror in a way never seen before.

Nearly 40,000 people - workers, politicians, royalty - took to the streets of the capital Oslo, to show their anger at what is seen as Norway's first racially motivated murder.

Norwegian Police at scene of Hermansen murder
Police see few incentives to bring racist charges
Hermansen, the son of a white Norwegian woman and a Ghanaian man, was stabbed to death near his home in an Oslo suburb.

Six people connected to Norway's small neo-Nazi community have been charged with his murder.

When he was buried on Tuesday, schools across the country flew their flags at half mast, and hundreds of people packed into the Hermansens' local church for a private service led by Norway's chief Lutheran Bishop.

Now that racism has become an acknowledged problem in Norway, a fierce debate is raging on how the authorities should deal with it.

Few convictions on racism

Since 1970 it has been a criminal offence in Norway to expose a person to hatred or lack of respect on the grounds of their colour of skin or ethnicity. But critics point out that so far only six people have been convicted under this clause.

Last year a fast-food kiosk in Oslo run by immigrants was fire-bombed. Shortly after posters went up in the area saying the attack was to stop the "blacks" selling drugs from the kiosk.

It is difficult to get somebody convicted on grounds of racism in Norway

Oslo Police Superintendent Finn Abrahamsen
One of the posters was signed "Masterrace 88" - the number is used by neo-nazi groups as shorthand for "Heil Hitler". Three men were jailed for damaging property, but the court refused to regard the attack as racist.

The police say court decisions like this work as a disincentive for them to try to arrest people on racist charges.

Superintendent Finn Abrahamsen from the Oslo police says this illustrates how difficult it is to convict somebody on grounds of racism in Norway.

"It is rare that we can link written material which in our opinion is quite clearly racist, directly to acts of violence targeted at immigrants. We had that in this case, and it still wasn't enough," he says.

But as a result of the Hermansen killing, Norway's chief public prosecutor has asked all of Norway's state lawyers to take a closer look at cases where the racism clause might be used.

Racist attitutes

Commentators differ on whether the killing will have a prolonged effect on people's attitudes toward immigrants. Member of the Norwegian Parliament Inge Loenning says Norway is struggling with what he calls every-day racism.

"People are still being denied jobs or sidelined for promotions. But I think what has happened has made at least many employers think twice about their attitudes," he says.

Scandinavian reaction

Norwegian MP Inge Loenning
Norwegian MP Inge Loenning: People are denied jobs or sidelined for promotions
Benjamin Hermansen's brutal death has touched a nerve in other Scandinavian countries. Sweden has long struggled with an increasing number of neo-nazi groups, and racist, so-called "white power music" has in some areas become mainstream.

Anti-racism demonstrations were held in both Stockholm and Copenhagen in response to Hermansen's death.

The eight governments of the Nordic Council, ending a meeting in Copenhagen on the day he was buried, said they felt "disgust over the racially motivated murder of a 15-year-old boy".

A possible political change

In Norway the tragedy could influence the result of this year's general election.

In the late 1990s the country's far-right Progress Party gained huge popularity on the back of its anti-immigration policies, and grew to become Norway's second largest political party.

It has been accused of legitimising racist attitudes.

But commentators say the party will have no choice but to play down their anti-immigration rhetoric in the months leading up to the election.

They say voters could shy away from the political right in reaction to the killing of Benjamin Hermansen.

Jonas Stoerer, Norwegian PM's chief-of-staff
"This is a challenge to the whole society, not a single group"
See also:

30 Jan 01 | Europe
Charges over Oslo 'racist' murder
23 Oct 99 | Europe
Swedes rally against racists
15 Jan 01 | Country profiles
Country profile: Norway
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