The conviction of a Swedish woman who blocked the deportation of an asylum-seeker by refusing to sit down on an airplane has been overturned, after it emerged a judge sitting on her trial had previously called her a ‘criminal’.
The Court of Appeal for Western Sweden ordered a retrial in the case of Elin Ersson, who was found guilty of breaking aviation law and fined 3,000 kronor (£250) in February.
Ersson had defied an airline crew’s orders by refusing to sit down on a flight from Gothenburg to Turkey in July 2018, with the intention of preventing the deportation of a 52-year-old Afghan man onboard the plane.
However one of the lay judges, who play a role similar to that of a jury, had described Ersson as a ‘criminal’ on Facebook when commenting on a news article months before her trial.
Ersson, pictured during her trial in the district court in Gothenburg, Sweden, has been granted a retrial after it emerged a lay judge in her case had referred to her as a ‘criminal’ in the months before the trial
Elin Ersson, 21, staged a protest on an airplane as it was about to leave Sweden for Turkey, refusing to sit down until a 52-year-old Afghan man due to be deported was allowed off
‘This statement must be considered as damaging the trust in the lay judge’s impartiality in the case,’ the court of appeal said in a statement.
The district court that fined Ersson was unanimous in its opinion – with the exception of the lay judge in question, who had pressed for a harsher punishment.
The judge, a member of the anti-immigration and right-wing populist Sweden Democrat party, reportedly favoured a 14-day jail sentence for the 21-year-old activist.
After his comment came to light, the lay judge was removed from his role, according to The Local.
Ersson’s lawyer Tomas Fridh told the TT newswire that it is important for the court of appeal to maintain high standards of fairness.
‘The court of appeal’s decision isn’t surprising,’ he said.
‘After the statement the lay judge made on social media, there was no possibility for him to be seen as impartial.’
However the role of lay judges in Sweden is somewhat controversial. They are appointed by political parties, causing critics to question how neutral they can be, particularly in highly-charged cases that draw a large public interest.
In district courts, three lay judges – who are not legally qualified – sit alongside the professional judge in an assisting role.
Ersson, 21, purchased a ticket for the Turkish Airways flight from Landvetter Airport in Gothenburg to Istanbul last summer as a protest, after learning that it would be carrying a failed 21-year-old asylum seeker from Afghanistan.
The 21-year-old said that finding out that the 52-year-old was a convicted criminal did not change her opinion about stopping his deportation as she claims being sent to Afghanistan amounts to a ‘death sentence’
However, upon arrival at Landvetter Airport, she was told he had already been sent out of the country on another flight.
When she heard that 52-year-old Bismallah S. was due to be deported on an upcoming flight, she bought a ticket.
However it later emerged that the man, 52-year-old Bismallah S., had served time for assault after attacking his wife and two teenage daughters in their home in Sweden.
Swedish police denied that his asylum rejection was linked to his crimes.
Ersson’s livestreamed video recording of her protest, which sees her argue with disgruntled passengers and staff ordering her to take her seat, went viral and generated millions of views worldwide.
At one point in the video, a disgruntled fellow passenger tries to seize her phone, but she asks him: ‘What is more important, a life, or your time?’
‘All I want to do is stop the deportation and then I will comply with the rules here. This is all perfectly legal and I have not committed a crime.’
Swedish activist Elin Ersson during her trial in the district court in Gothenburg, Sweden, on February 4 2019. She was originally found guilty and fined but has now been granted a new trial
However, prosecutors disagreed, and indicted her for breaking aviation laws in October last year.
Her disruption of the flight severely delayed take-off and eventually saw her, Bismallah S. and his assigned security removed from the flight.
Ersson said afterwards that she had not been aware that the 52-year-old was a convicted criminal, however said she still felt her protest was justified, as going to Afghanistan amounted to a ‘death sentence’.
Bismallah S. was deported to Afghanistan a few weeks later.
Ersson’s lawyer has always maintained that his client is innocent, saying the aviation act only applies to actions taken whilst the plane is in the air.
‘During the entire action she was prepared to follow the orders of the captain on board, and she left the plane as soon as the pilot decided that she should do so,’ the lawyer, Thomas Fridh, said at the time of indictment in October.