Norway’s worst terrorist jailed for 21 years

A shrine for Breivik’s victims, set up in the aftermath of the massacre © Getty Images

After a year in court, Anders Breivik has been found guilty of killing 77 people in the politically motivated Utoya attacks. He has been sentenced to 21 years in jail. Is this the right punishment?

Last year, on a normal July day, a man named Anders Behring Breivik changed Norway forever. First, he detonated a bomb in Oslo, killing eight people. Then he drove to Utoya, a remote island. There, he unleashed a systematic, nightmarish massacre, shooting teenagers who were taking part in a political camp. Stalking the island to pick off his victims one by one, he had murdered 77 by the time he was caught.

Now, over one year later, the trial of Norway’s worst peacetime killer has come to an end. On Friday, Breivik was found sane, and guilty. His punishment is Norway’s maximum sentence: 21 years in prison.

In reality, Breivik will stay in jail for as long as he poses a danger to the public, so it is unlikely he will ever leave prison. Yet many are shocked at the shortness of his official term; technically, he could be a free man by the time he is 53, serving less than four months for each person he slaughtered.

Why such mercy? Norway’s liberal laws state that no-one can serve more than 21 years in jail. And because it holds the rule of law in such high regard, this applies to everyone – even the most shocking killers.

The insistence is part of a long tradition of democracy and openness. Freedom of speech and religion, liberal attitudes to immigration, and rehabilitation rather than punishment for criminals are cornerstones of Norwegian society.

And when Breivik opened fire on Utoya, he was attempting to destroy those values. In his muddled, racist writings, he speaks of a war against liberals who support diversity in society. He deemed Norway’s treatment of criminals ‘pathetic’, and argued that the only acceptable outcome of his own trial would be acquittal or death.

When faced with Breivik’s bloodshed, then, many Norwegians wanted to fight back with the values he hated. After the shooting, the country’s Prime Minister, Jens Stoltenberg, summed up the reaction. ‘It was our democratic, open society that was under attack’ he said. ‘Our response is more democracy, more openness, and more humanity’.

Crime and punishment

That does not, however, mean that everyone accepts Breivik’s sentence. Some still think it is ludicrous that a man who has killed so many should ever walk free. Someone so merciless does not deserve mercy, or fairness or dignity; by treating him with humanity, Norway have let Breivik win.

Not so, others say; it is justice, not Breivik, that has triumphed. By upholding the principles of fairness and tolerance, and the rule of law it has taken years to develop, Norway has stood firm in the face of extremism. The nation has stood by its values, and refused to let itself be changed by Breivik and his warped ideology.

You Decide

  1. Were Norway’s authorities right to sentence Breivik to 21 years in prison?
  2. Can mass murderers ever be rehabilitated or forgiven?


  1. As a class, imagine you are a jury tasked with setting Breivik’s sentence. Have different representatives argue the case for various types of punishment, and vote on your choice.
  2. Many of the families of those killed in the massacre were present at last week’s sentencing. Write a letter to Anders Breivik from the point of view of one of these relatives.

Some People Say...

“Breivik should be locked up and never released.”

What do you think?

Q & A

So Breivik was bad, not mad?
Yes – he was found sane. His actions were not inspired by paranoid delusions or schizophrenia, but a carefully thought out political ideology. Now, many are questioning just how widespread and influential that worldview might be.
How so?
In many European countries, the far-right extremism that inspired Breivik seems to be on the rise. From Greece to Norway to Germany, more voters are opting for parties with strident anti-immigration policies. UK groups like theEnglish Defence League, which campaigns against the ‘Islamisation’ of Britain, continue to be active and visible. Although these groups do not support terrorism, their ideas influenced Breivik’s ‘mission’ – and some experts worry they could fuel more violence in the future.

Word Watch

Curiously, both Breivik and the majority of Norwegians hoped for a verdict of sanity. Breivik himself wanted his views to appear legitimate, and thought an insanity verdict would discredit his racist ‘cause’. Many Norwegians, on the other hand, were keen that the right-wing ideology he believed in was taken seriously as a problem – rather than thought of as the deranged ideas of just one man.
Stay in jail
Breivik was sentenced to 21 years in jail, with what is called a ‘preventative detention’ clause. This means that if he is deemed a danger to the public, he will not be released. Many legal commentators think it unlikely that he will ever get out of jail. If Breivik were to convincingly apologise and renounce his views at the end of his sentence, however, the courts could be legally bound to release him.
English Defence League
The EDL is a right-wing extreme political group, which campaigns against Muslim immigration and what it believes is an Islamic influence on the UK. Though the organisation presents itself as a legitimate movement for English culture it is widely thought to be founded on racist ideas.

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