TOENSBERG, Norway (Reuters) - The morning after militant rightist Anders Behring Breivik ran amok on a small Norwegian island, hunting down and shooting dead 69 people, Geir Lippestad received a call from the police asking if he would defend him.
“My first reaction was ‘no, I don’t want to do this, it’s just too difficult.” He turned to his wife, a nurse. “She said ‘wait. If he was shot, the doctors and nurses would... help him, they’d do their job. You’re a lawyer, so don’t you want to do your job?’”
Eight months have passed since that call and there have been hard times for Lippestad. In the first days, he received anonymous threats and had to deal with the dismay of some acquaintances. For a while he was assigned a security detail.
Now the April 16 trial is approaching, reviving memories of what for the whole of Norway was a traumatic event; but Lippestad has no regrets about taking the case.
Breivik detonated a car bomb in central Oslo On July 22, killing eight. In the chaos that ensued, he traveled to a small island where the Labour Party were holding a youth camp. There, brandishing an automatic rifle, he worked his way across the island gunning down terrified victims. He did it, as he told police, to “protect” the Nordic nation from multiculturalism.
After his capture by police, he asked for Lippestad to defend him as once he had defended a neo-Nazi accused of murder.
Ole Nicolai Kvisler received 15 years in jail in 2002 for killing Norwegian-Ghanaian teenager Benjamin Hermansen.
Lippestad, a short, stocky shaven-headed man with a measured, soft-spoken manner, does not subscribe to Kvisler’s far-right ideology.
A member of the ruling Labour Party, 47-year-old Lippestad’s own values reflect the way Norway likes to see itself - as a liberal country with tolerant attitudes cutting across ethnic, social and cultural lines.
The lawyer became convinced defending Breivik was key in defending the values he believed in, especially at time when some were calling for a toughening of Norway’s open society and criminal justice system, where there is no death penalty and the maximum prison sentence is 21 years.
“It would be so easy to say ‘this case is so cruel and difficult that this person shouldn’t get the same rights as others’,” he told Reuters in an interview.
“But if we change the rules for one person, we threaten the core of democracy. People must enjoy the same rights and must be punished by the same laws.”
Lippestad, one of the few individuals in Norway with close, regular access to the killer, said Breivik “believes we are at war.”
“He wishes for a new world order that few people can agree with,” he said. Breivik has never expressed regrets for his actions.
At the trial, Lippestad may argue in Breivik’s favor that he spared the youngest children during the island massacre, collaborated with police, tried to surrender and confessed to his actions.
He will argue his client is sane, in line with the wishes of Breivik, who regards himself as sound of mind. A first medical report declared him to be insane, but the results of a second examination are pending.
“No matter how horrible a crime was, a defendant has to have someone looking out for his interest. This is just a vital brick in the wall of democracy,” said Lippestad.
“I would say 99 percent of Norway understood this is absolutely vital to a sound justice system.”
Lippestad has received support from other parts of Norwegian society, including from survivors of the attacks. At Breivik’s last remand hearing in February, Helene Georgsen, a 16-year-old survivor of the shooting spree, approached Lippestad to shake his hand.
“I wanted to show him my support. He does a very important job and he does it incredibly well,” she told Reuters after speaking with the lawyer.
In return, Lippestad showed visible concern for the teenager, asking in his ever-calm voice how she was doing and whether she was getting assistance from her lawyer.
“You should prepare yourself for the trial, it will be tough,” he told her.
Several chat groups with hundreds of members have sprung up on Facebook to show Lippestad support. “It is a dirty job but someone has to do it,” said one post, while another noted: “The man has an inhumane task to deal with.”
“He is probably one of the world’s most patient men,” Vibeke Hein Baera said, one of three lawyers assisting him in the case.
“He is just a nice, calm, friendly man and I simply don’t know how he does it. I often find myself going home and just crying,” Mette Yvonne Larsen, a lawyer representing survivors and relatives of the victims, told Reuters.
“When there are just four people on your side and the entire world is against you, this job is vital. It’s not defending what he did, it’s making sure all the arguments are on the table.”
While dealing with the difficulties of the Breivik case, Lippestad was also facing his own personal trauma. He and his wife have eight children altogether, including from previous relationships, of which two children have disabilities.
One of them, 16-year-old Rebekka, has struggled for years with deteriorating health and earlier this year Lippestad faced the danger of losing her, just as his wife was expecting a baby girl, Mille Madicken.
“For a long time I felt ashamed about having another child just when so many parents lost their own children,” he said.
Rebekka eventually pulled through but remains frail and Lippestad admits that caring for her has been a source of calm for him.
“We are used to living through crises, and we are used to overcoming them and living life to the fullest,” he said.
But Lippestad also experiences moments when the enormity of his situation takes its toll - especially with the ten weeks of a gruesome trial approaching and the attention of Norway and the world on him.
“I feel I have lost my soul in this case,” Lippestad recently told the French daily Le Monde. “I hope to get it back once it’s over - and that it will be in the same condition as before.”
Additional reporting and editing by Gwladys Fouche in Oslo and Alistair Scrutton in Stockholm