Just when it seemed that Progress Party (FrP) boss Carl I. Hagen had won his war against factional opponents, the party has been rocked by a young woman’s statement to the annual meeting of the party’s Hordaland county branch.
At the gathering on 10 February, Cathrin Rustøen took the microphone and claimed she had been raped by a prominent member of the party. For a couple of days, rumours flew, with much speculation about the identity of the "rapist".
Only hours after Rustøen’s allegations became public, a separate case in which a 17-year-old girl also claimed to have been sexually assaulted by the Progress Party's second in command, the married Terje Søviknes, hit the tabloids. The incident, she said, had taken place after after a drinking session at the congress of the FrP’s youth organisation last year when she was still aged sixteen.
On evening news bulletins the same day, Søviknes admitted that he had had sexual relations with the girl at the congress. Rarely has there been such a pitiful spectacle on nationwide television screens in Norway as that of Søviknes grovellingly claiming he was “deeply sorry”, “regretted the whole thing” and "”hoped that there was room for forgiveness”.
The FrP was shaken to its roots, its leader, Carl I. Hagen, by now bitterly regretting that he had earlier dismissed the claims of rape and sexual assault as "rubbish". Of central importance in the Søviknes scandal is the fact that the party leadership had actually known about the incident, but had chosen to do nothing about it.
Indeed, Hagen had campaigned hard to get Søviknes into second place on the parliamentary elections candidates’ list despite knowing about the allegations levelled at his protegee. The leadership of the Progress Party now stands accused of sheltering the political career of one of its most promising politicians, at the expense of a victim who had turned to it for support. The revelations have proved immensely damaging with voters deserting the party in droves, according to opinion polls taken shortly after both incidents became public.
Meanwhile, Søviknes was pulled in for questioning by the police, as was the girl who had not officially reported him. Instead, she explained to them that while Søviknes had not used force or violence she still felt that what had occurred was a sexual assault.
Hagen has said that the fact that prosecution authorities will not be charging Søviknes does not change the moral aspect of the case and admitted that it was clearly wrong of Søviknes to engage in sexual relations with such a young girl.
Søviknes, for his part, was briefly under self-imposed suspension from his post as mayor of Os but has now resumed his duties, claiming that he is still supported by those who voted for him and that he now wants to put the sex scandal behind him.
The rape claims made at the Hordaland meeting have been overshadowed by the Søviknes affair but an FrP youth leader, Chim Kjoelner, has been named as her attacker by Cathrin Rustøen during police questioning. Kjoelner, who strongly denies the accusations against him, has taken leave of absence from his position in the party’s youth organisation.
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