LONDON — Iceland's former prime minister faces trial Monday as the first world leader criminally charged over the 2008 financial crisis that left the world teetering on the edge of financial disarray.
Geir Haarde became a symbol of the get-rich bubble economy for Icelanders who lost their jobs and homes after the country’s main commercial bank collapsed, sending its currency into a nosedive and inflation soaring.
He is accused of negligence in failing to prevent the financial implosion from which the small island country is still struggling to emerge.
Haarde's trial — the culmination of a long fight by the politician to avoid prosecution — marks a new chapter in the aftermath of the meltdown: accountability.
The former prime minister has rejected the charges, calling them “political persecution” and insisting he would be vindicated when he appears at the Landsdomur, a special court being convened for the first time in Iceland's history to try him.
Legal experts say he has a strong chance of beating the charges, because of the strength of his legal team, growing sympathy for a politician alone in shouldering blame, and because the court's structure — laid out in 1905 — is flawed because it allows lawmakers, not lawyers, to press charges.
In the crisis's immediate aftermath, as unemployment and inflation skyrocketed, many sought to affix blame for the havoc across the 330,000-strong nation. A wave of public protests forced Haarde out of government in 2009.
Some have argued that Iceland's financial meltdown was tied to the global crisis, and that the government could not have predicted or prevented it. But a parliament-commissioned report put much of the blame on Haarde and his government, saying that officials “lacked both the power and the courage to set reasonable limits to the financial system.”
It was up to lawmakers whether to indict those officials. After heated debate, Haarde was referred to the special court. Legal experts say such a vote makes the road ahead particularly rocky.
“This whole scenario has demonstrated that we need to change the system,” said Robert Spano, law professor at the University of Iceland.
The special court will consist of 15 members — five supreme court justices, a district court president, a constitutional law professor and eight people chosen by parliament. The court was founded to deal with criminal charges against Icelandic government ministers.