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Indicted for arson

Outside the building late at night on March 20 last year. FOTO: Roger Zahl Ødegård

Indicted for arson

A woman in her 20s faces several years in prison for attempted arson in Longyearbyen. Prosecutors believe lives could have easily been lost.

Late on the evening of March 20 of last year a woman drenched a foam rubber mattress in a storage room in the stairwell of a row house on Vei 222. Then she ignited the mattress. The alarm went off at 11:15 p.m. on that Friday night and the fire was extinguished thanks to a resourceful resident. The woman was arrested shortly afterwards.

'Could easily have died'

"One or more people who lived in the building could easily have died if the fire had not been detected and extinguished in time," wrote Lars Fause, chief prosecuter for Nord-Troms District Court, in the indictment issued Tuesday under the authority of the Norwegian Director of Public Prosecutions.

The woman is being charged under Penal Code Section 148, the so-called arson section, which carries a minimum sentence of two years in prison depending on the severity of the incident.

The penal code further states attempted arson is punishable, even if the act is not fully carried out.

"There is a basis for evidence that she actually did light it," Fause told Svalbardposten. "A second is that someone extinguished the fire, the Ukrainian citizen."

Se bildet større

The foam mattress that was put on fire, stood outside the door of the building the day after the incident. FOTO: Eirik Palm

Extremely dry wooden building

The row house is wooden, and has 18 apartments and flats. The Longyearbyen Fire Department classifies the wood as "extremely dry." Fire department officials told Svalbardposten immediately after the incident that it could have become a major fire.

The fire department also stated there were flames and dense smoke. Mihail Shevchuk, 35, one of the residents, sprayed a powder extinguisher over the mattress and initiated an evacuation of the building. Traces of the flames along the walls and ceilings are still visible today.

Not admitting to arson

The woman, a resident at the time, quickly acknowledged she had lit the mattress when she was arrested shortly after the fire. She was then taken into custody and brought to the mainland for evaluation.

Experts there considered whether she was criminally sane, issuing a report declaring she is.

"We now have the indictment and will go through the documents," said Gunhild Lærum, the woman's attorney.

"She has in interviews acknowledged the facts related to the incident, but not arson," the attorney told Svalbardposten.

Lærum said he has not discussed the charges with his client, but expect to do so during the next few days.

Taking the case himself

Svalbard's lieutenant governor would normally be the prosecutor in the upcoming criminal proceedings, but because he is being replaced after completing a fixed term Fause has opted to handle the case himself.

Nord-Troms District Court has not yet announced when the matter will be heard, and whether it will occur in Tromsø or Longyearbyen for the sake of being able to inspect the scene.

The first policeman on the scene, personnel from the governor's office who performed the forensic work, four of the residents who evacuated the building and the fire chief in Longyearbyen are being summoned as witnesses in the case.

The woman is also accused of vandalism and being a public nuisance in Longyearbyen on the evening in January and for having bought and used amphetamines in March of 2015.

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