Austria: Police Attack on US Man Brings Up Racism

Veronika Oleksyn, AP, June 21, 2009

Mike Brennan was getting off a Vienna subway when two undercover police officers pounced on him, mistaking him for a drug dealer. Months later, the 35-year-old black American is still recovering from his injuries–and waiting for a satisfactory apology.

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A recent Europe-wide study by the Vienna-based EU Fundamental Rights Agency found 55 percent of minorities and immigrants think “discrimination based on ethnic origin is widespread in their country.”

The survey, which questioned 23,500 people from ethnic and immigrant minorities across the 27-nation European Union, also found that Gypsies and Africans reported the most abuse and that many victims have a “lack of confidence” in government anti-racism policies. Groups surveyed included Africans, Central and East Europeans, Iraqis, Turks and Roma, or Gypsies.

Earlier this year, a video showed police officers in the Swedish city of Malmo using racial slurs to describe youth rioting in an immigrant neighborhood. Authorities said it was an isolated incident, but critics contend it highlighted an undercurrent of xenophobia in the force.

In the Czech city of Brno, a policeman was charged with misuse of power and causing bodily harm resulting in death after a January incident claimed the life of a 43-year-old Vietnamese man. {snip}

Still, Austria’s police have a particularly spotty record when it comes to ethnic minorities.

In May 1999, 25-year-old Nigerian immigrant Marcus Omofuma died while being deported after police strapped him to his airplane seat and taped his mouth and nose shut. And in 2006, police officers assaulted a Gambian man, identified only as Bakary J., at a warehouse after he refused to be deported, seriously hurting him.

In both cases, the officers received suspended sentences. In the Omofuma case, the three officers were found guilty of negligent homicide but acquitted of torture leading to death. In the Bakary J. case, three of the officers had been charged with physically abusing the man. A fourth was charged with neglect of his duties by doing nothing to stop his colleagues.

In April, Amnesty International released a report saying it was concerned skin color was too often a factor in Austrian police interventions and found shortcomings in the country’s recording and public availability of statistics on racist crimes.

It said there was considerable evidence Austrian police have engaged in widespread ethnic profiling over the past decade, particularly in efforts to counter drug-related crime. It also expressed concern that disciplinary proceedings against law enforcement officials are sometimes not initiated despite “strong evidence” pointing to serious misconduct.

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Still, Austria is a popular destination for immigrants because it is a safe and wealthy nation where job prospects are relatively good compared to other European countries. This spring, the Mercer consulting firm ranked its capital, Vienna, as the city with the world’s overall highest quality of living. While taxes are high, Austrians enjoy universal health care, generous pensions and extended maternity leave.

About 545,000 of the country’s population of 8.3 million are foreigners other than EU nationals and citizens of Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland. Of those, the majority–292,730–are from nations of the former Yugoslavia. Some 110,678 are from Turkey, 59,538 from Asia and 21,460 from Africa.

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Still, worse could be ahead with the rise of Austria’s far-right Freedom Party, which garnered about 13 percent of the vote in recent elections after running a blatantly anti-foreigner campaign.

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