By Balazs Koranyi and Benjamin Ree
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.
SYMPATHY OF SURVIVORS
"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. Continued...