Reversal of fortune: Decision not to investigate Dec. 19 avalanche as a criminal matter overturned by top prosecuter


Update: Svalbardposten reported Friday the city of Longyearbyen is trying to reach a settlement with the parents of a two-year-old girl killed in the avalanche without admitting legal liability. Store Norske is also indicating it is willing participate in such discussions.

Original story: The avalanche last Dec. 19 that destroyed 11 homes and killed two people should be investigated as a criminal matter, a reversal according to Norway’s Director of Public Prosecutions, overturning a decision by regional prosecutors not to seek charges.“In a case like this, where a natural disaster has claimed two lives and caused serious material damage, and where an entire community is affected, it is obviously reason to investigate for the purpose of clarifying the cause, as the governor has done,” a press release issued Friday by the Director of Public Prosecutions states.

The decision does not mean concrete evidence of criminal conduct has been found, the release notes.

One of the persons killed in the avalanche was Nikoline Røkenes, 2, when her family’s home was buried. Her parents, Pia Sivertsen and Kim Rune Røkenes, sharply protested the regional prosecutors’ decision in June not to seek charges, filing a complaint with the national director and indicating they might seek further legal action.

Among their complaints were reports dating back to 1992 stating the area where the avalanche occurred could be exposed to such slides every 20 to 30 years, yet the city of Longyearbyen permitted and Store Norske (the property’s owner) built houses there without taking any precautionary measures such as barriers or a warning system.

“We are relieved and happy that the matter is now being investigated,” Kim Rune Røkenes told NRK. “This is what we have fought for.”

Svalbard Gov. Kjerstin Askholt said she supports the reversal, but declined to discuss if she believes charges are warranted.

“From the beginning, the governor’s office has declared itself disqualified in this matter, and we ask for your understanding that we cannot comment on the case while it is under investigation,” she told Aftenposten.

“It is important that the matter is thoroughly investigated so that the bereaved and the public get a response, and that no undue parties be subjected to suspicion, as it says in public prosecutions’ press release.”

Svalbardposten reported Friday the city and Store Norske are willing to discuss a settlement with the parents without admitting criminal liability. The city is already involved in discussions with the parents.

“We want work  along the lines of this resulting in a just and and good deal,” Longyearbyen Mayor Arild Olsen told the newspaper. “We want to avoid having this case ending up in court.”

Store Norske Managing Director told Svalbardposten an attorney’s review of the situation indicates the company is not legally liable, “but we would like to contribute to a dialogue and hope it is possible to arrive at an amicable solution.”