Joint Statement on prison sentence of internationally acclaimed artist Odd Nerdrum
We make this declaration to bring to your attention a grave injustice that has been largely overlooked by the international media. We believe this case has profound implications for both the freedom of speech and human rights. What, at first, might appear to be a typical criminal case, is in fact, much more.
On August 17th 2011, the 67-year-old internationally acclaimed painter Odd Nerdrum was sentenced to two years in prison by a Norwegian court without chance of bail, for the alleged crime of tax evasion. On June 27, 2012, his sentence was increased to two years and ten months in the appeals court. We can only conclude that the increased sentence was a punishment for appealing the judgment of the court.
The circumstances of the case as it unfolded continue to raise serious concerns that cannot be overlooked and we believe that continued attention is needed.
Under Norwegian law, Nerdrum would not be allowed the freedom to paint while in prison. Nerdrum's paintings are an act of free speech, and should be recognized as such.
Thus, the denial of Nerdrum's freedom to paint in prison would be a violation of his freedom of speech.
Odd Nerdrum on multiple occasions went on record expressing his views critical of the Norwegian government, as well as publicizing his outspoken position against many aspects of Norwegian government policies, repeatedly infuriating members of its establishment and undermining the ruling party’s claims of universal support for its policies. Furthermore, Nerdrum’s political speech was even censored on the Norwegian television show “Skavlan”.
Thus, considering that Nerdrum has been a well known critic of authority, a critic of the dominant Norwegian political party, and that the very nature of his work inherently questions the principles of this government: the suppression of his painting by a judicial system dominated by the very same party is equivalent to the suppression of political speech.
The unprecedented and increased severity of the sentence the Norwegian government rendered upon Odd Nerdrum is entirely disproportionate to any actions attributed to him. For a country priding itself on liberal leniency and civilized fairness toward any offenders, including violent criminals, Odd Nerdrum’s sentence stands out as particularly cruel and unusual.
Furthermore, the court fumbled the details, providing inflated numbers that did not agree with the official disclosure of the U.S. IRS, and did not provide a reasonable explanation of their accounting. Moreover, the court did not provide concrete evidence of Nerdrum's guilt and convicted him on suspicion and conjecture. It is evident from reading the verdict of the district court that the court presumed his guilt from the beginning, and there exists more than a "reasonable doubt".
Let us be clear: Nerdrum was not charged with not paying his taxes. Nerdrum paid the taxes that the Norwegian IRS demanded of him many years before the criminal case several times over. Yet, the Norwegian court filed a criminal case against him regardless. The charge against him was that he intentionally hid a specific sum of money from the IRS in a bank account that he never held.
The deeply flawed judicial process demonstrated in the course of Odd Nerdum’s trials would have never stood the scrutiny of the US legal system; it makes a mockery of democratic principles of justice and betrays a glaring government prejudice toward Odd Nerdrum. This prejudice, combined with the unusual severity and harshness of the sentence, amounts to nothing less than government persecution of the individual.
In light of the troubling combination of judicial prejudice, severity of punishment and Nerdrum’s position toward the government of Norway, the case against Odd Nerdrum cannot be seen as anything but an attempt by the government of Norway to silence and to punish its high profile critic. This is a case of violation of the freedom of speech and the suppression of dissent. It is a case of the violation of the basic human rights to which any individual is entitled resembling methods used by the Chinese government against its dissident artist Ai Weiwei.
The implementation of this unjust sentence by Norway will turn Odd Nerdrum into the first “prisoner of conscience” in Europe since World War II and we believe it is a profoundly troubling development.
We are appalled that a country publicly priding itself on being a standard-bearer of democratic principles is falling into the oppressive practices of disgraced totalitarian regimes.
Moreover, Odd Nerdrum is effectively being prosecuted by the Norwegian government for a
”financial crime” at a time when international bankers, through a premeditated financial fraud have deliberately stolen astronomical amounts, leaving people of the World to bear the full brunt of financial liability through bail-outs and austerity, thus deliberately impoverishing nations generations into the future, all while their respective governments shield those mass scale criminals from prosecution. In this environment, punishing the artist by the state with unprecedented severity for alleged financial infractions is preposterous and despicable.
We condemn the government persecution of our peer.
We believe that even if the aforesaid crime was proven beyond reasonable doubt, with all due evidence, the sentence is disproportionate, unusual and unjust.
We believe that any restriction on creative, artistic and professional life of Odd Nerdrum is damaging to the collective world of international culture and has no basis either in public benefit nor in justice. To rob humanity of nearly three years of masterpieces by such an international treasure is a crime against humanity.
We believe that justice has not been served thus far; a great injustice has occurred and now must be fully remedied. We believe that if at the end of judicial process the sentence rendered by the Norwegian court is not changed or carried without substitution of imprisonment by the appropriate and reasonable fine it will remain a permanent historic stain on the good name of Norway, and we believe it is our human duty to express our opinion and our concern.
We believe that the appellate court missed an important opportunity for the Norwegian government to “right the wrong” toward Odd Nerdrum - the court missed the opportunity to prevent the Norwegian justice system from being used as a tool of government persecution of a political dissent; to show the world that the country of Norway still cares about the ideals of justice and free speech; to give an objective look and enough due attention to all relevant issues of the case, free of understandable emotions of the tragic unrelated events that overwhelmed reason; to embrace its great artist in a civilized manor; to support him in creating more important works of art and not restricting it; preserving the honor of Norway and respecting its unique creator whose art is deeply cherished around the World.
Highlights of the case that after the decision by appellate court must be re-tried
The court failed to provide proof of a key piece of evidence in the prosecution against Nerdrum: a bank account at Chase Morgan Bank in Manhattan, which the court claimed belonged to Mr. Nerdrum. He has denied ever having any account with this bank. The court supplied no proof of such an account. We believe that the burden of proof should be on the court and not the defendant.
The accounting used by the court does not agree with the official disclosure of Nerdrum’s income for the years in question. Both Forum Gallery, who had exclusive rights to sell Nerdrum’s work worldwide, and the U.S. tax authorities (the IRS) disclosed an amount of $1,486,000. Yet, the court sentenced Nerdrum for approximately $2,349,000 and did not provide adequate explanation for the $863,000 discrepancy.
The years in question (1998-2002) all exceed the statute of limitations of any other western country. We know that the statute of limitations is in place precisely because evidence vanishes over the years. It is in place to protect individuals from false persecution.
Further, the court dismissed without proof, and merely based on suspicion, a crucial piece of evidence submitted in Nerdrum’s defense: a legal contract with his NY gallery clearly describing that money had been set aside in a safety deposit box as a fund for future claims from clients who wanted refunds for some 40 damaged paintings that Nerdrum had painted with an experimental technique.
•The damaged paintings were well documented in the Norwegian media.
•Nerdrum in good faith never considered this sum to be his personal property, but the property of the gallery necessary to cover its potential liabilities.
•The fact that Nerdrum repainted these damaged pictures and offered them to his clients, which took many thousands of hours and ten years to do, is a testament to his sincerity, dedication and integrity.
•Unlike many others in business and art world of Norway he never intended to hide this sum from tax authorities and always paid his taxes.
These circumstances should have been taken into consideration while determining the appropriate and reasonable verdict, had the trial been fair and not politically motivated.
Instead, the sentence imposed by the court for this crime is completely unprecedented under Norwegian law for its harshness.
2-3 Examples of lesser lesser sentences imposed in Norway in similar cases to describe unprecedented nature of Nerdrum sentence. First with a quote from the official verdict:
“It is clear that Nerdrum has paid the back taxes.
There are not many decisions in Case Law that are comparable to the present case, but a couple of decisions provide certain guiding concerning the penalty level of gross tax fraud. “
The case of the owner of a cab company. The cab owner was sentenced for having intentionally reported too low wages for his 60 to 70 drivers in the period from 2001 until 2003, totaling 6,4 million NOK. (The following fact was omitted from the court’s consideration, but can be found in the Norwegian press about the case) He was sentenced to 1 year 6 months, but the judge considered that he had under the stress of being investigated for 5 years, and thus let him off on probation.
Conversely, Nerdrum was investigated for at least 10 years and received no such consideration.
The case of former Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland
Brundtland resided in Nice, France for approximately 6 years without paying any income taxes to any country, evading an estimated amount of 2.5 million NOK. The case was conveniently kept quiet and the judge dismissed the case without a clear explanation.
Finally, Nerdrum would have to serve his entire sentence in prison without painting. His works are highly sought after internationally and the ones produced during political imprisonment would likely be even more desirable by the markets, and therefore even more valuable now and in the future. Producing such works in prison would with certainty be interpreted and qualified by the hostile Norwegian authorities as “commercial activity” forbidden by Norwegian law.
All this while those who perpetrated the financial crisis all sheltered by their respective governments.
Odd Nerdrum’s case is becoming an example to the world of the dangerous authoritarian abuses in a country claiming to be a standard bearer of Social Democracy. We sincerely hope that a fair resolution to this error of justice can be reached swiftly, so as not to further stain international respect for the country of Norway.
Signed: Alexey Steele, Brandon Kralik, and Richard T Scott
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