Inger Stojberg, Danish Official, Faces Impeachment Trial Over Migration Policy

Inger Stojberg, who presided over tough anti-immigrant policies when her party was in charge, is being tried on charges of illegally separating couples who sought asylum.

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Her contentious tenure as Denmark’s immigration minister included taking out advertisements in Lebanese media warning potential migrants to stay away, planning to house unwanted foreigners on a hard-to-reach Danish island, and celebrating the passage of anti-immigration policies with a cake.

Now, the Danish lawmaker Inger Stojberg is facing accusations that she ordered the illegal separation of couples, some of them with children, who sought asylum in Denmark, in a rare impeachment trial in Copenhagen.

The high-profile case, which began on Thursday, is only the sixth of its kind since Denmark’s Constitution came into effect in 1849, and will be decided by a panel of judges from the Supreme Court and others appointed by Parliament. If found guilty, Ms. Stojberg could face fines, a vote in Parliament to remove her as a lawmaker, or a prison sentence.

Appearing Thursday in court, where her arrival was greeted by a small group of supporters waving placards outside, a composed Ms. Stojberg said she expected to be acquitted and that she had acted to split underage girls from older husbands in forced marriages.

“I wouldn’t have been able to live with myself if I hadn’t fought for the rights of these girls in these cases,” she told reporters outside the court.

Legal observers said the impeachment of Ms. Stojberg has followed on a political shift in Denmark that occurred in 2020 after her center-right party, which pursued a tough line against migrants, lost parliamentary elections to the center-left Social Democrats.

At the center of the trial is a statement Ms. Stojberg issued when she was immigration minister in 2016, following extensive coverage in the Danish media about so-called “child brides” at asylum centers, to separate asylum-seekers in marriages where one person was underage, even if they had children. Some 23 couples, many of whom had fled to Denmark to escape wars in Syria and Iraq, were subsequently separated by immigration officials.

“They have to be separated,” she said at the time to the Danish Broadcasting Corporation, “because I will not accept that in my system there could be examples of coercion.” She has also argued, however, that she never actually issued specific orders to separate couples.

According to the impeachment indictment, Ms. Stojberg violated both Danish law and the European Convention on Human Rights because her department did not individually assess each case. The indictment also said she gave misleading or incorrect information during parliamentary consultations on four occasions in 2017 regarding the separations.

Jens Elo Rytter, a professor of constitutional law at the University of Copenhagen, said it was unlikely that Ms. Stojberg would have to serve a prison sentence, but “ultimately, her political career is at stake.”

A conviction would make it difficult — though not impossible — to remain in politics. However, her anti-immigration stance remains popular among many Danes who fear an influx of immigrants into the country.

“If she’s not convicted, then she will be a star,” said Helle Vogt, professor of legal history at University of Copenhagen, adding that the case had not diminished her popularity among her supporters. Days before the trial began, Ms. Stojberg launched her own media platform, promising to give subscribers insights into the trial.

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Ms. Stojberg in the Danish Parliament during debate on an immigration law in 2016.Credit…Mathias Lovgreen Bojesen/EPA/REX/Shutterstock

Ms. Stojberg’s statement calling for the separation of the couples was criticized at the time by the Danish Institute for Human Rights, which said that while the government should combat forced marriages, “to apply the same yardstick to everybody is not the solution.”

One of the couples separated — a 17-year-old pregnant woman and a 26-year-old man — filed a complaint with the Danish Parliament’s ombudsman, who ruled that the policy was illegal. Another woman who was separated from her partner in 2016 tried to kill herself and was hospitalized, according to a Danish media outlet Politiken.

However, the complaint was not followed up by the government, which was then led by Ms. Stojberg’s party.

“The right-wing government at the time were not keen to pursue anything approaching investigations or impeachment,” Professor Rytter said.

That changed after a commission established by the center-left government that took power in 2020 concluded that Ms. Stojberg’s actions had been illegal. In January, two lawyers hired by Parliament concluded that there was a “reasonable expectation” that Ms. Stojberg broke the law, and a majority in the Danish Parliament voted to impeach her.

Professor Vogt said one question the judges would be weighing was whether she actually ordered the separations or if immigration officials acted on their own.

The question for the judges: “Did she order it, or did she say it in a way that was not an order?” she said.

The trial is the latest controversy to embroil Ms. Stojberg, who presided over her government’s immigration policy at a time when rising numbers of migrants from the Mideast and Africa ignited a rise in anti-immigrant sentiment in many European countries.

In 2016, she was criticized for falsely claiming that a public day care center in a Danish town had banned children from eating pork in deference to Muslims. In 2018, she announced a government plan to house foreigners with criminal convictions on an island, saying that they should feel “unwanted.”

But perhaps the most criticized incident was a photo that emerged of Ms. Stojberg smiling proudly in front a cake to mark the 50th restriction passed against immigration, including one that stipulated asylum-seekers would have to hand over jewelry and gold to help pay for their stays in Denmark.

She resigned as deputy leader of her Liberal Party in December 2020 as the threat of an impeachment trial loomed.

The trial is set to continue through the fall with a verdict by the end of the year, according to a court calendar.

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