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Denmark: Parliament Votes to Initiate Impeachment Proceedings against Former Immigration Minister

(Feb. 19, 2021) On February 2, 2021, the Danish Parliament voted to initiate impeachment court proceedings against former Minister for Immigration, Integration and Housing Inger Støjberg for issuing a directive in 2016 requiring the automatic separation of asylum-seeking spouses when either spouse was under the age of 18. The directive was in force during February and March 2016 and affected 23 couples. In 2017, the Danish Parliamentary Ombudsman (Folketingets ombudsman) determined that the directive was illegal  because it did not provide for any exceptions and individual determination. Following the Parliamentary Ombudsman’s determination, one of the 23 couples received monetary compensation from the courts for being separated. In that case, the girl was 17 years old and pregnant in the third trimester.

The directive (instruks) to the Danish Immigration Service (Udlændingestyrelsen), which was originally issued after a Danish newspaper reported in 2016 that underage girls were housed together with their adult spouses at Danish asylum centers, was aimed at preventing underage girls from being sexually assaulted by their husbands. A survey conducted by Udlændingestyrelsen following the article showed that a girl aged 14 was housed together with her 28-year-old husband, and that several girls aged 15, 16, and 17 were housed with husbands in their 20s and 30s. Before the guidance from Støjberg’s office, the Udlændingestyrelsen allowed for determinations to be made in each case, but, as written, the instruks did not allow for any exemptions. Støjberg claims that the Udlændingestyrelsen was informed that individual considerations may be legally necessary in certain cases to comply with the European Convention on Human Rights. Støjberg served as the responsible minister for immigration and integration in Lars Løkke Rasmussen’s government (II and III) until the election in 2019 when their party, Venstre (the Liberals), and coalition parties lost the majority in the national parliamentary election.

The Danish Constitution provides that former ministers may be brought before the Impeachment Court for failing to administer their office. Specifically, article 16 states that “Ministers may be impeached by the king or the [parliament] for maladministration of office. The Court of Impeachment shall try cases of impeachment brought against ministers for maladministration of office.”

In total, 139 members of parliament, including 31 out of 41 members of her own party, voted to initiate proceedings against Støjberg, while 30 members of parliament voted against and 10 members were absent. One of the members of parliament who voted against initiating proceedings was former Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen, who left the Liberals at the beginning of January 2021 to vote as an independent. The vote on initiating impeachment proceedings took place using special COVID-19 measure rules, limiting the number of members present in the chamber at the same time. Following the vote, Støjberg left the Liberals. She currently serves as an independent member of parliament.

The Court of Impeachment (Rigsrett), consisting of 15 members of the Supreme Court and 15 members appointed by the Danish Parliament, will now be convened. To be convicted the former minister must be found to have “intentionally or through gross negligence neglecte[d]” her duties or “provided the Folketing with incorrect or misleading information.” (§ 5 Lov om ministres ansvarlighed (LOV nr 117 af 15/04/1964.) If convicted, Støjberg may be fined or imprisoned for up to two years. She could also be found unfit to serve as a member of parliament and prevented from standing for election to the Danish Parliament in the future. The most recent conviction against a minister was in 1995 when Erik Ninn-Hansen was sentenced to four months’ imprisonment for having prevented the family reunification of Tamil refugees from Sri Lanka.