Iceland Granting Citizenship to Bobby Fischer, Held in Japan

By SARAH LYALL

New York Times

March 22, 2005

LONDON, March 21 - Iceland's Parliament voted Monday to grant citizenship to the American chess star Bobby Fischer, laying the groundwork, his supporters said, for his release from the Japanese prison where he has been held since last summer.

"We are most happy," said Einar Einarsson, a spokesman for a committee that has been trying to free Mr. Fischer from Japan, where he is being detained while he fights deportation to the United States.

Mr. Einarsson, who called Mr. Fischer "part of our modern saga and part of our recent history," said that the 62-year-old chess champion might be released "in only a few days" and that an Icelandic delegation planned to travel to Tokyo to escort him back to Reykjavik.

In Washington, the State Department had no comment, although a spokesman noted that renunciation of American citizenship did not allow citizens to escape prosecution of crimes in the United States.

The vote appears to be a resolution of sorts to the curious legal limbo that Mr. Fischer fell into in 1992 when, the United States says, he violated sanctions against Yugoslavia by accepting a $3.3 million fee to play an exhibition match there.

After that, the always reclusive, progressively more difficult Mr. Fischer dropped out of sight, living in Budapest - and possibly the Philippines and Switzerland - and emerging now and then on radio stations in Iceland, Hungary and the Philippines to rant in increasingly belligerent terms against the United States and against Jews.

This latest episode began in July 2004, when he tried to board a plane from Japan to Manila and was seized by the Japanese authorities and accused of trying to leave the country on an invalid passport. He has been held in prison since then while the various governments, as well as a staunch group of supporters in the chess world, have tried to find some resolution to what has been a vexing and delicate jurisdictional issue.

But while the United States - which is also investigating the possibility of charging him with tax evasion - regards Mr. Fischer as a fugitive from justice, in Iceland he is seen as a national hero. It was in Reykjavik in 1972 that he defeated the Russian world champion, Boris Spassky, in an electrifying cold war chess contest that pitted East against West.

As much as the African-American track star Jesse Owens's defeat of Hitler's Aryan athletes did at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, Mr. Fischer's victory in Iceland seemed to symbolize nothing less than the triumph of one way of life over another - in this case, democracy over Communism.

It is partly for that reason, said Bjarni Benediktsson, chairman of the parliamentary committee that recommended last week that Mr. Fischer be granted citizenship, that Parliament voted in favor of his request on Monday. Iceland had already agreed to issue a resident's permit and special passport to Mr. Fischer, but that had not proved enough for the Japanese authorities.

His supporters said they had received assurances from Japan that with Icelandic citizenship and a passport, he would be free to leave. "It was very clear from the outset that he had a great influence here," Mr. Benediktsson said, speaking by telephone from Reykjavik. "A new generation of international chess players was born here in Iceland after the world championship match in Reykjavik, and it was very clear from the outset of this matter that the authorities in Iceland have very warm feelings toward this memory."

He emphasized that the granting of citizenship was considered only as a last resort, "after the applicant had exhausted all other possibilities" of gaining freedom. He also said Mr. Fischer's "personal opinions on social issues" had not been a factor.

An official at the Immigration Bureau of the Justice Ministry said nothing had been decided yet about whether or how Mr. Fischer might be released. But the official said it is legally possible that he could be sent to Iceland as a destination of repatriation under the deportation order, if he is granted citizenship there.

The Committee to Free Bobby Fischer, meanwhile, praised the Icelandic Parliament, saying in statement issued in Tokyo that it had "made history by standing up to the earth's sole superpower."

In a telephone interview, Mr. Einarsson played down the significance of Mr. Fischer's reputation for misanthropy and his habit of making incendiary public remarks. "Everyone knows his views, and he doesn't need to repeat them again," he said. "He's like Rembrandt or Mozart - one of these very big people - so his personality is beside the point."

He said Mr. Fischer was likely to make Iceland his home, at least for the time being. "I think he will stay in Iceland a lot, at least for the coming months, and then he will travel feely around the world - although I don't expect he will be going to America."