Controversial French explorer convicted fined 40K for illegal boat voyage in Svalbard; he says he will appeal

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A French explorer waging a war of accusations against Norway’s government since being detained in northeast Svalbard during a boat trip last fall was convicted Tuesday and ordered to pay 40,000 kroner for violating several environmental and access laws.

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The Polarsyssel tows the Arktika-2 to Longyearbyen in October. Photo by Bjørn Frantzen

Gilles Elkaim, 56, was detained and his 15-meter-long Arktika-2 sailboat towed to Longyearbyen after the vessel broke down in Duvefjorden, a protected nature reserve. The governor subsequently fined Elkaim 25,000 kroner for illegally accessing multiple locations in the archipelago and bringing his seven dogs ashore without authorization, which he refused to pay in favor of a trial.

Elkaim claimed the access restrictions violated the Svalbard Treaty’s policy of equal access, and his visit to banned areas was for legitimate emergency purposes due to harsh vessel and vessel damage. The verdict – following a rare trial in Longyearbyen last month – by Nord-Troms District Court Judge Bjørn André Holmen rejected all of Elkaim’s assertions.

“The court notes that the defendant at no time in that time period sent out distress signals or messages that speak to the effect that he was in a real emergency situation,” Holmen wrote, adding “The court (also) finds it is proven beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant knew that he did not have the necessary permission to bring animals ashore in Svalbard.”

The court imposed a 30,000 kroner fine (or a 25-day prison sentence) for the criminal violations and ordered Elkaim to pay 10,000 kroner in court costs. Elkaim told NRK he’s refusing to accept the verdict because it “didn’t seem like the court system would consider or understand our arguments” and continued his ongoing effort to direct attention to other issues where he claims Norway’s government is the true criminal.

“I’m not a criminal. What is criminal to go ashore to clean trash in an area Norwegian authorities should have cleared,” he said, adding he plans to remain in Barentsburg until he sails further north while appealing the verdict.

Elkaim, his wife Alexia Nezondet and crew member Grégoire Potot departed Kirkenes last August for what they hoped would be a replica of Fridtjof Nansen’s Fram expedition of 1893–1896, freezing into the northern sea ice and reaching the North Pole by dogsleds before returning and drifting with the sea ice until it thawed.

But they passed through a restricted area of Bjørnøya and then others in the northeast part of Svalbard before storm damage left the vessel stranded at Duvefjorden. He requested permission from the governor to remain at the site during the winter, then depart in spring after repairing the vessel, but the governor towed the Arktika-2 instead after rejecting the request as illegal and impractical.

Elkaim and his wife have remained with their boat and dogs in Svalbard since his detention, but in January moved to Barentsburg after calling Longyearbyen “a city without souls” and complaining extensively on Facebook about various alleged conspiracies against him by the governor, prosectors, the media, and the national governments of Norway and France. He’s also waged an accusatory awareness campaign about environmental pollution in Svalbard, framing it as intentional criminal behavior by officials.