REYKJAVIK, Iceland -- As chief of police in a tiny fishing town for 11 years, Olafur Hauksson developed what he thought was a basic understanding of the criminal mind. The typical lawbreaker, he said, recalling his many encounters with small-time criminals, "clearly knows that he crossed the line" and generally sees "the difference between right and wrong."
Today, the burly, 48-year-old former policeman is struggling with a very different sort of suspect. Reassigned to Reykjavik, the Icelandic capital, to lead what has become one of the world's most sweeping investigation into the bankers whose actions contributed to the global financial crisis in 2008, Mr. Hauksson now faces suspects who "are not aware of when they crossed the line" and "defend their actions every step of the way."
With the global economy still struggling to recover from the financial maelstrom five years ago, governments around the world have been criticized for largely failing to punish the bankers who were responsible for the calamity. But even here in Iceland, a country of just 320,000 that has gone after financiers with far more vigor than the United States and other countries hit by the crisis, obtaining criminal convictions has proved devilishly difficult.
Public hostility toward bankers is so strong in Iceland that "it is easier to say you are dealing drugs than to say you're a banker," said Thorvaldur Sigurjonsson, the former head of trading for Kaupthing, a once high-flying bank that crumbled. He has been called in for questioning by Mr. Hauksson's office but has not been charged with any wrongdoing.
Yet, in the four years since the Icelandic Parliament passed a law ordering the appointment of an unnamed special prosecutor to investigate those blamed for the country's spectacular meltdown in 2008, only a handful of bankers have been convicted.
Ministers in a left-leaning coalition government elected after the crash agree that the wheels of justice have ground slowly, but they call for patience, explaining that the process must follow the law, not vengeful passions.
"We are not going after people just to satisfy public anger," said Steingrimur J. Sigfusson, Iceland's minister of industry, a former finance minister and leader of the Left-Green Movement that is part of the governing coalition.
Hordur Torfa, a popular singer-songwriter who helped organize protests that forced the previous conservative government to resign, acknowledged that "people are getting impatient" but said they needed to accept that "this is not the French Revolution. I don't believe in taking bankers out and hanging them or shooting them."
Others are less patient. "The whole process is far too slow," said Thorarinn Einarsson, a left-wing activist. "It only shows that 'banksters' can get away with doing whatever they want."
Mr. Hauksson, the special prosecutor, said he was frustrated by the slow pace but thought it vital that his office scrupulously follow legal procedure. "Revenge is not something we want as our main driver in this process. Our work must be proper today and be seen as proper in the future," he said.
Part of the difficulty in prosecuting bankers, he said, is that the law is often unclear on what constitutes a criminal offense in high finance. "Greed is not a crime," he noted. "But the question is: where does greed lead?"
Mr. Hauksson said it was often easy to show that bankers violated their own internal rules for lending and other activities, but "as in all cases involving theft or fraud, the most difficult thing is proving intent."
And there are the bankers themselves. Those who have been brought in for questioning often bristle at being asked to account for their actions. "They are not used to being questioned. These people are not used to finding themselves in this situation," Mr. Hauksson said. They also hire expensive lawyers.
The special prosecutor's office initially had only five staff members but now has more than 100 investigators, lawyers and financial experts, and it has relocated to a big new office. It has opened about 100 cases, with more than 120 people now under investigation for possible crimes relating to an Icelandic financial sector that grew so big it dwarfed the rest of the economy.
To help ease Mr. Hauksson's task, legislators amended the law to allow investigators easy access to confidential bank information, something that previously required a court order.
Parliament also voted to put the country's prime minister at the time of the banking debacle on trial for negligence before a special tribunal. (A proposal to try his cabinet failed.) Mr. Hauksson was not involved in the case against the former leader, Geir H. Haarde, who last year was found guilty of failing to keep ministers properly informed about the 2008 crisis but was acquitted on more serious charges that could have resulted in a prison sentence.
Meanwhile, an investigative commission appointed by Parliament first reported to it in April 2010 and later published a nine-volume account of the financial crash, including a study of what philosophers charged with investigating ethical issues behind the crisis called a "moral void" at the heart of Icelandic finance.
Vilhjalmur Arnason, a philosophy professor at Iceland University who worked on the study, described the exercise as "very important for reasons of justice and for reconciliation" in a society traumatized by a crash so severe that it threatened to capsize the country. But, he added, bankers alone were not responsible, as "the whole society was so intoxicated" by values that put profit ahead of morality, the law and even common sense.
After the crash, the new government pushed to restructure the failed banks, purging their former management and owners and prodding them to write off a big chunk of their loans to homeowners burdened with big mortgages. The government declined to bail out foreign bondholders, who lost about $85 billion. Iceland now has a growing economy.
But it is not entirely clear that Iceland deserves its reputation as a warrior against Wall Street orthodoxy. In time, Iceland won praise from the International Monetary Fund for sharp cuts in spending and tax increases that slashed the government's deficit and helped put the country back on an even keel.
Certainly Iceland, in contrast to the United States and most other countries, has pursued not only little-known financiers but also many of the country's biggest names in banking and business. "We have been aiming at the upper levels rather than the lower levels," Mr. Hauksson said.
His biggest scalp so far is that of Larus Welding, the former chief executive of Glitnir, one of the trio of banks that failed in 2008. Mr. Welding and a second former Glitnir executive were found guilty of fraud over a $70 million loan to a company that owned shares in the bank.
Mr. Welding, who is now standing trial in a second case along with one of the country's most prominent business tycoons, Jon Asgeir Johannesson, was sentenced in December to nine months in prison, six of which were suspended.
The light sentence enraged many Icelanders, but, Mr. Hauksson said, "the important thing is that we got a conviction." By contrast in Ireland, which put taxpayers on the hook for tens of billions of dollars owed by failed banks, the former chief of the failed Anglo Irish Bank has been charged with financial irregularities but so far no senior bank executive has yet been found guilty of a crime.
Prosecuting bankers was never going to be easy, particularly in a country like Iceland, which is so small that nearly everybody in the capital has a friend or family member who worked at one time in finance. When Iceland's Justice Ministry first advertised for applicants for the new post of special prosecutor, nobody responded.
Mr. Hauksson, an outsider with no network of friends and relatives in Reykjavik, was then urged to apply during a second attempt to fill the post and was given the job.
"I thought this was something that had to be looked into," Mr. Hauksson said. "If we prosecute small cases we also have to look into big cases." But, he added, this risks "opening up a Pandora's box" that can escalate even relatively simple cases "into something very big."
The high stakes have also left some investigators vulnerable to temptation: two former members of Mr. Hauksson's staff were placed under criminal investigation last year for selling confidential information for 30 million Icelandic krona (around $233,000) to the administrator of a bankrupt company who was trying to locate missing assets.
That episode has not dented Iceland's heroic image among antibanker campaigners abroad. Mr. Sigfusson, the minister of industry, said he was regularly invited to speak on how Iceland dealt with its banking crisis. Iceland, he said, has "no magic solution" but has managed to push through unpopular cuts in spending in part because it managed to curb public anger by pushing for the prosecution of its bankers.
Today, Iceland's bankers are both mocked for their recklessness during the boom years and reviled for pushing the country to the brink of economic ruin.
Mr. Sigurjonsson, the former Kaupthing banker, said a "big umbrella of suspicion" has opened up over anybody who worked in finance and unfairly stigmatized "highly educated and very able people who can lend a hand in resurrecting the country."
He said he was shocked recently when he heard the young daughter of a friend, also a former banker, ask, "Daddy, why are bankers all criminals?"world
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.