Amnesty International: Racism and Austrian Justice

Amnesty Int. finds a pattern of abuse

News | Lauren Brassaw | May 2009

Looking different, sounding different and coming from somewhere else often make you suspect in Vienna, according to a damning new report by the human rights watchdog Amnesty International (A.I.) released Apr. 9.

"Institutional racism is permeating the Austrian police force and other parts of the country’s criminal justice system," the report said. The organization is calling for urgent action to ensure equality in police and judicial entities to all people, despite their ethnic origin or skin color.

Following the recent injuries to African-American teacher Mike Brennan and the mistreatment of a handicapped Sudanese Austrian citizen, the police here have been described as "plagued by systematic racism." The report released in April concluded among other things, that crimes committed against minority groups by police are characterized by discrimination based on skin color.

"It is high time that political leaders and senior police officials acknowledge the existence of racism in the police force," said John Dalhuisen, the report’s author and Amnesty International’s expert on Austria. "Public confidence in the police cannot be maintained if police officers known to have committed serious human rights violations remain in office."

Out of the nearly 900 cases reported in the Austria’s Office of Public Prosecution in 2006, only 20 came before a court, said the report, supporting the data with testimony from victims documenting shocking run-ins with Austrian police.

This is the first official report to contextualize the human rights abuses by Austrian authorities, from the perspectives of both the law and the victims.

One victim was a Polish-Austrian, ‘H,’ who recalled to Amnesty International how, in the confusion of a night-fight, he was accused of being one of the aggressors and was subsequently charged with resisting lawful authority. He filed a formal complaint against the Austrian police, which was dismissed by the prosecutor in Aug. 2007. Undeterred, ‘H’ took his case to the Independent Administrative Tribunal (IAT) and, after acknowledging that his rights had been violated, the charges were again dismissed. The officials were never charged.

In Vienna, those accused of a crime or who come in contact with the police are more likely to be non-white, and once accused, they are also less likely to receive equal treatment in the justice system. All of these patterns of abuse are subject to penalty under both European Union and International legal structures such as the European Court of Human Rights, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the United Nations Convention Against Torture.

These practices reflect a consistent pattern of racial profiling within the Austrian police force, said Heinz Patzelt, the General Secretary of Amnesty International in Vienna, in a news conference on Apr. 9. Austrian police are more likely to suspect foreigners of criminal activity, especially those of African descent, than native Austrians with European backgrounds.

"The result is clear; it’s racism," Patzelt said.

The recent experience of Vienna International School teacher Mike Brennan is a case in point. (see March & April Vienna Review) Brennan, who is black, was picked out effectively at random while riding the subway and suspected of being a drug dealer; he subsequently suffered injuries including hairline fractures to the vertebrae. The police response, which included repeated denials and an alleged suppression of videotaped evidence, reveals a pattern of insensitivity to the international community’s concerns about human rights violations.

Despite the report’s detailed examples of mistreatment, there has been no response from the police, nor any proposals as to how to address ethnic minorities with equality, according to Dalhuisen.

"People with dark skin color don’t receive the same service, the same protection as whites," Dalhuisen said. Other examples from the report show that police officials often dismiss the ‘stories’ told by foreigners or ethnic minorities, and fail to uphold basic rights until higher authorities become involved.

The Austrian "de facto two-tier justice system is an affront to the concept of justice," Dalhuisen said. "Common social prejudices and stereotypes regarding foreigners and different religious and ethnic groups can have no place in law enforcement."

The impact of the A.I. report on Austria brings the pattern of judicial and racial discrimination to international attention, and whether it will affect Austrian politicians and police and judicial systems remains pertinent. To date, neither the City of Vienna nor the Austrian government has made a formal response concerning the Amnesty report, nor admitted openly that there are indeed problems with racial profiling and exclusion of ethnic minorities.

"The Austrian authorities must send a clear message to law enforcement officials and to the public in general that ill-treatment of detainees and racist misconduct are absolutely prohibited in all circumstances and will be investigated and sanctioned as appropriate," Dalhuisen said.

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