History of Abuse
Victims of Racism in Austria
The events at Spittelau underground station on Feb. 11, coupled with Mike Brennan’s profile as a U.S. citizen and teacher at the Vienna International School, have led many to hear for the first time the fears felt by Vienna’s black community – the fear of victimisation on the basis of skin colour, of finding oneself ethnically profiled and singled out from one moment to the next, of institutional racism rearing its head in the ugliest form possible: through random violence.
But are these fears ill-founded? Is the treatment Mike Brennan claims to have suffered at the hands of Viennese police officers a sign of structural racism, or could it have been a one-off act perpetrated by two highly-pressured individuals who simply got carried away?
"The case of Mike Brennan is not an isolated case," says Alexis Neuberg, founder of Radio Afrika. "I regularly receive complaints from people who have suffered similar aggression. The big difference is that Mike is American, so unlike the others, his case couldn’t be swept aside." In many similar cases, there are two or more police while the victim is alone – above all at night, explains Neuberg, "so police aggression is often impossible to prove. They often claim resistance to state authority, as if these Africans would be better trained than and able to resist the police."
Indeed, if one is to look at recent history, the reason why Austria’s blacks may live in fear becomes apparent. Outlined below are five cases where a person of color has lost his life while in the custody of the authorities, in circumstances that many feel are yet to be satisfactorily resolved.
Fearing persecution in his homeland Nigeria, 25-year-old asylum seeker Markus Omofuma screams and physically resists deportation aboard on May 1, 1999 Balkan-Air flight from Vienna to Sofia. The Austrian security police escorting him bind his hands, feet and chest to his seat, and gag him with a roll of medical tape. The flight’s chief radio officer describes how Omofuma struggled desperately for air, leading him to ask the police remove the gag, which they did not do. By the time the flight arrives in Sofia, Omofuma has suffocated to death. It was later revealed that the gagging of deportees – particularly black Africans – had become common practice. The police officers involved in Omofuma’s death received suspended sentences for causing death through negligence, and were allowed to continue in service.
Twenty-six-year-old Nigerian Richard Ibekwe dies during the night of May 2, 2000 while in police custody. Police had arrested him three days before during a narcotics raid on Redtenbachergasse in Vienna’s 17th District. An official autopsy stated that Ibekwe died of an overdose. Eyewitnesses at Ibekwe’s arrest claim police assaulted him, although an investigation into police brutality was halted in February 2001 due to lack of evidence.
Police officers pin Mauritanian physics student Seibane Wague to the ground and beat him in Vienna’s Stadtpark on Jul. 15, 2003, after he tries to escape being sectioned. Police and emergency services had arrived on the scene after Wague had caused a disturbance following a mental breakdown. As Wague is held down – at times with the full body weight of officers – doctors inject him with a strong antipsychotic. Wague dies during the incident, video footage recorded by a bystander causing a public outcry. One police officer and the emergency doctor ultimately received suspended sentences for causing death through negligence, though both continue in service.
On Aug. 19, 2004, inmate at Lower Austria’s Stein prison Edwin Ndupu dies from what an autopsy concluded was a fat-embolism caused by self-inflicted injuries. The 37-year-old Nigerian had allegedly threatened fellow inmates and prison guards with a knife in the corridor outside his cell, and needed 15 shielded wardens armed with truncheons and pepper spray to be brought under control. Only with the use of tear gas could Ndupu be calmed, according to the guards, who then bound his hands and feet and carried him to solitary confinement. There he continued to resist, requiring sedation through a 5mg injection of valium. Ndupu never regained consciousness. The prison guards that came into contact with HIV infected Ndupu’s blood during the hour long altercation each received a compensation payment of € € 2000.
Following a rejected asylum application, 18-year-old Gambian Yankuba Ceesay starts a hunger strike in order to escape repatriation to a land in which he would suffer persecution. The hunger strike lands Ceesay in solitary confinement while awaiting deportation in Linz. A week after the strike starts – on the Oct. 4, 2005 – he is found dead in his cell. Doctors at Linz Hospital examined Ceesay a mere two hours before his death, passing him fit to be taken back to prison. As is a common theme in the stories outlined here, prison guards had judged Ceesay to be aggressive and took him back to solitary confinement, which he would never leave.
Do Vienna’s blacks have it harder than the others, "Yes!" says Alexis Neuberg without hesitation. "Black men and black women are more affected by racism than the immigrants from other communities. Because the color of their skin betrays them as a foreigner. Even if they’re Austrian nationals, they always remain a foreigner."