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Rehabilitation not retribution marks Norway's policy
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banner Friday, 30 June, 2000, 17:05 GMT 18:05 UK
Young killers shown compassion
Children in snow
Norway's attitude towards childhood responsibility differs markedly to the UK

At what age should our children lose their innocence and take on adult responsibility?

The Bulger case touched such a raw nerve in Britain that it still produces powerful feelings even now seven years after two-year-old James was murdered. There was an outcry when the European Court of Human Rights recently forced the Home Secretary to review the sentence the killers should serve.

Just after James Bulger was murdered there was a case in Norway with almost eerie similarities: the two killers were children; there was that edge of cruelty about the way they were killed; and again the victim was a younger child - in this case a little girl. Yet the reaction of the community and the handling of her young killers marked an almost total contrast to that of the Bulger case.

The body of little Silje Redergard was found in the snow near her home in the Norwegian city of Trondheim. She had been beaten and battered and left to freeze to death by her attackers. Like the Bulger case it caused a city and a nation to examine its conscience.

Violent crime in Norway is rare, crimes against children are almost unheard of. As the first snow of winter was falling on Saturday the 15th of October 1994, Silje Redergard was out playing near her home. She was five years old, the middle of three children. The most her mother had to fear was an accident.

Silje Redergard was killed by two young boys
Beate Redergard was at home when there was a knock at the door. "One of the local children came to the door and told me what had happened. He said Silje had been found dead on the slope where they had been sledging. I couldn't believe it; it just didn't seem possible."

Silje had been murdered. The police quickly narrowed down the prime suspects, the two boys seen nearby. They were both six years old. Terje Lund, the police officer leading the investigation, did not treat the boys as he would other suspects. "I brought some toys with me from home and I asked the parents to bring some toys so we could try to be confident with the boys by playing." After an hour or so of gaining the boys' confidence they were officially interrogated. This took fifteen minutes, in which the boys confessed to using violence against Silje and then leaving her.

That night news of the murder spread. "I was shocked, my colleagues were shocked, the whole society was shocked", explains Terje Lund. "I don't know if it happened before in Norway so we were in a unique position ... and we were starting to get information from abroad to see if it had happened in Europe before and then we found a case in Britain."

Children treated differently to adults

That was the Bulger case. But the way in which Norway dealt with the murder of Silje was in stark contrast to that of James Bulger's. It's an astonishing story that forces us to challenge some of our basic principles of how we deal with young offenders.

In Norway, no children under 15 are prosecuted and Silje's killers were back at kindergarten within a week. The local community were encouraged to air their views and brought together to grieve openly. A team of counsellors was set up to work with the children in school. The strategy worked and, amazingly, there were no reprisals against either of the boys or their families. They were able to carry on living on the local housing estate.

I feel sympathy for them. They need compassion. They must be treated as children and be shown kindness and concern rather than vengeance

Silje's mother
The police, the local community and even Silje's mother were united in believing that they shouldn't be punished. "Yes, I feel sympathy for them," she says. "They need compassion. They must be treated as children and be shown kindness and concern rather than vengeance."

In England the age of criminal responsibility is ten. Laurence Lee, who represented one of the Bulger killers, questions whether England's policy is correct. "I come into contact with a good deal of juvenile crime and I see the same kids time and time again going through the system, receiving different penalties ... all that happens is they grow up through the system and become adult criminals."

Terje Lund, the policeman in charge of the Norway case, is adamant that young offenders should receive different treatment from adults, "I really don't like to hear that you can put children, ten years old, into custody. I think it's meaningless." The psychologist who treated the two Norwegian boys argues that children must be treated with compassion, "It's really got something to do with how you treat children. Because what we were concerned with was to do everything we could to prevent these children from developing further into dangerous and criminal individuals. And to do that you have to keep the children integrated in a normal environment." The boys were considered victims in much the same way as Silje.

I really don't like to hear that you can put children, ten years old, into custody. I think it's meaningless

Norwegian psychologist
On one of the first days back in the Kindergarten, one of the boys who killed Silje asked his helper if he could go for a walk. The boy brought him to the place where Silje was killed and they sat and talked about what happened. Such freedom would be unthinkable in England. However, this freedom does not necessarily abrogate feelings of forgiveness and guilt.

The two boys have visited Silje's grave to make real to them the tragic events in October 1994, and both have expressed remorse for what happened. While the Bulger killers remain locked away suffering from our desire for retribution, Silje's mother, Beate, believes it is easier to cope if you feel kindness and concern rather than vengeance and thinks she will, in time, forgive the boys involved in her daughter's tragic death.

Laurence Lee
Laurence Lee, solicitor in the Bulger case, reports from Norway
"Clearly their system works for them", states Lee, "the statistics prove it. And maybe there are some things they can teach us." However, he fears that the social problems in English cities are now so entrenched that "we've missed our opportunity."

In light of last year's ruling by the European Court of Human Rights, stating that the trial of the two boys was unfair, questions may be raised in England as to how responsible children are for their actions and whether we should seek rehabilitation or retribution.

Producer: Guy Smith

Reporter: Laurence Lee

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