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Most members of far-right PVL and Soldiers of Odin have criminal records

An Yle study of two far-right anti-immigrant groups finds that the vast majority of their active members have criminal records.

PVL members march in Helsinki's Hakaniemi neighbourhood in 2016. Image: Jyrki Lyytikkä / Yle

Some 70 percent of active members of the neo-Nazi Nordic Resistance Movement (or PVL) and the loosely-affiliated Soldiers of Odin have criminal backgrounds, usually including violent crimes.

Finnish authorities are moving to outlaw the PVL, which police have described as a violent criminal group.

Yle has found that the vast majority of the group’s active figures have criminal records, and that the same is true of a loosely-affiliated group called Soldiers of Odin (SoO).

Ties between the two far-right groups have become closer of late, with the SoO apparently serving as an informal support group for the longer-established PVL. The SoO appears to be worried that it could be next to be banned.

Many convictions for violent and property crimes

The Yle study shows that active members of these two organisations have been convicted of significantly more crimes than the population at large – and that these tend to be violent and property crimes.

The PVL claims to only use violence in self-defence, but court records show otherwise.

Police documents urging a court to ban the PVL cite political violence as a key reason to outlaw the group. They list eight ideologically motivated crimes committed by PVL members in 2011-16. Yle has learned that members have been suspected of at least three other such crimes in the past two years.

Ministry: Ideological violence mainly by far right

According to the Interior Ministry, ideologically motivated violence in Finland is mainly carried out by the far right. It says that the far left has been responsible for few violent acts, adding that what it describes as anarchist and radical anti-fascist activities are mostly limited to the southern cities of Helsinki and Tampere.

Both far-left and far-right groups have been implicated in violence connected with marches on Independence Day (6 December).

The PVL will march as usual this Thursday despite the pending ban on its activities, says its leader Antti Niemi.

Niemi, who has not been convicted of any violent crimes, tells Yle that his group does not consider criminal records when recruiting members. However he adds that for instance sex offenders are not welcome.

Soldiers of Odin founder Mika Ranta says that criminal background is also generally not relevant for his group, although it could be considered on a case-by-case basis.

Ranta himself has an extensive rap sheet. He was convicted of eight violent crimes in 2002-15 along with other offences.

District courts have sentenced at least 43 PVL and SoO members since the turn of the millennium.

Seven out of 10 members probed had at least one criminal conviction, compared to an estimated 40 percent of the population at large, as estimated by a University of Turku study from a few years ago. Whereas most of that 40 percent had solely traffic-related violations, the group members have more often been convicted of violent and property crimes, the study found.

Six have drug convictions while four were military deserters.

United by anti-immigration ideology

While the PVL and Soldiers of Odin are united by anti-immigration ideologies, there are other differences.

The SoO calls itself a nationalist group, while the PVL openly describes itself as “national socialist” – in other words neo-Nazi.

Some of the victims of assault by group members are of immigrant background, but the ideological motives for the crimes were not clear from the court documents seen by Yle.

Since 2000, active PVL members have been convicted of at least 47 assaults. Members of the Soldiers of Odin have racked up at least 19 violent crimes since the self-styled street patrol was founded in 2015.

Members of the two organisations also have rap sheets including some 30 convictions for military crimes and offences against officials and the general order.

Soldiers of Odin membership dropping

For this report, Yle identified 61 active members of PVL and Soldiers of Odin in Finland and asked for court records on their criminal backgrounds. The individuals included 43 who have taken part in PVL activities and 18 were have been active in SoO. Reporters examined 250 court rulings from around Finland.

The Finnish Security Intelligence Service (Supo) estimates that PVL has some 100-120 members, so the probe covered close to half of its active membership. The Soldiers of Odin claimed to have as many as 600 members in 2016, but Yle has found that the number of active members has since dropped to a fraction of that.