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Danish officials under fire over mass killing of minks

The decision to kill all farm minks in late 2020 due to fears of a new Covid-19 variant provoked anger across the country. The so-called Mink Commission blames 10 officials for allowing the order to be carried out without legal authority.

COPENHAGEN, Denmark (CN) — Denmark has finally closed the book on one of the most bizarre legal cases in recent national history, after an independent judicial body released a 1,500-page report outlining failures by several senior officials in the government's decision to kill all minks on Danish farms at the height of the pandemic.

It all started in early November 2020. Danes were heading towards new lockdown regulations after a summer of socializing and going to work, almost as usual. Covid-19 infection numbers were rising, and it would still be a few more months until the first vaccines to be approved in Europe.

News had circulated about a new virus variant, known as Cluster 5, that had been found in minks. Soon, Denmark's State Serum Institute, or SSI, warned that vaccines aimed at the spike protein in the coronavirus would have limited effect on this specific mutation.

Initially, the Danish government decided to only monitor, track and isolate the infected minks in collaboration with their owners. But things changed fast after the SSI stated on Nov. 3 that “continued mink breeding during an ongoing Covid-19 epidemic involves a significant risk to public health."

The next day, Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen and then-Minister of Food Mogens Jensen held a press conference announcing that all minks in Denmark were to be put down because the variant had spread to humans.

A culling order that would leave farm owners short of 15 million minks was executed quickly. The Danish military deployed its soldiers to handle the task, and within 10 days the country was essentially rid of the animal.    

One big problem, however, is there was no legal basis for the action. The Social Democratic government had not succeeded in getting Parliament to back the intervention as a "matter of urgency". It wasn't until Dec. 21 of that year that lawmakers reached an agreement for a yearlong ban on minks.

But by then it was too late. The Danish government had already carried out a political decision without legal authority for the first time on such a grand scale.

That conflicts with one of the main pillars of rule of the law, said Sten Bønsing, professor of administrative law at Aalborg University.

“In a democratic state governed by the rule of law, a government can only take actions against citizens if the elected Parliament has backed it up. In other words, if a legal authority exists. It is one of the most foundational rules,” he said in an interview.

Bønsing has helped answer the public's questions on the mink scandal several times on Denmark´s leading media stations. He called the case ”extraordinary” and emphasized that the public interest has been massive, mainly because Danes hold the rule of law to high standards and react strongly if those in power violate fundamental democratic principles.

The scandal has already had severe legal consequences. Jensen resigned as food minister the same month the mass extermination was carried out, and around 1,000 mink farmers have been compensated over 5 billion Danish kroner ($669.6 million), with more to come.

Now, a new report released by the so-called Mink Commission in early July puts 10 high-ranking officials in the crosshairs. The independent judicial body concluded they could face punishment for failing to inform the prime minster of the lack of legal authority to carry out the culling order.

According to the report, the officials did little to gather knowledge from relevant agencies and ask experts within the Ministry of Food for advice.

Bønsing said the alleged misconduct will likely lead to employment issues for the officials rather than prison or financial fines.

“We currently see some of the country´s highest-ranking officials, such as the head of department and the chief of staff, have their cases assessed," he said. "They get paid highly to know the rules and advice accordingly. And they let that responsibility down when they did not warn the prime minister that her decision would be illegal."

The Mink Commission's report clears Frederiksen of responsibility, finding she was never aware of the lacking legal basis for executing the political decision to put down all minks to eliminate health risks.

Frederiksen still stands by the culling order, calling it the right decision at the time.

“From our point of view, a responsible government couldn´t do anything else," the prime minister said upon release of the report.

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