Report on IADL/ELDH events in Vienna on 23 May 2019
The 23 May saw the IADL, in collaboration with ELDH and other organisations, hold 2 meetings in Vienna, coinciding with the annual Commission on Crime Prevention (“CCPCJ”) and Criminal Justice at the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (“UNODC”).
The first event, ‘Strengthening Fortress Europe – the Criminalisation of Refugees and the Pro Refugee Movement’, took place during the afternoon session of the CCPCJ. It sought to focus on the draconian practice of states in using criminal law to attack refugees and solidarity activists within the context of the ‘refugee crisis’. Since 2015 there has been a great surge of solidarity amongst European civil society towards those who have entered the continent fleeing persecution and violence. From Lesvos to Calais, various volunteer solidarity groups have been created to provide vital life-saving support to those seeking international protection. This nascent “pro-refugee” movement, which has been successful in mobilising hundreds of thousands of people across the continent in defence of the rights of those seeking international protection and against the idea of “Fortress Europe”, is now facing attack. The source of these attacks are not primarily from fascist groups, but from European States who seek to criminalise members of the pro-refugee movement. At the same time, the severe human rights breaches which those seeking international protection chronically suffer in Europe, again primarily at the hands of European states, has steadily led to increasingly organised political resistance amongst the very people subjected to such treatment. The response to such legitimate resistance has been the criminalisation and imprisonment of the movement’s leaders, who due to their precarious situation as applicants of international protection, are often deported once their terms of imprisonment finish.
The first presentation was given by Melanie Strickland, a UK solicitor and member of the Haldane Society. She spoke about the ongoing case against her and the other defendants within the ‘Stansted 15’, a group of individuals who took direct action to physically prevent the departure of a chartered aircraft intended to deport individuals from the UK to Ghana, Nigeria and Sierra Leone. The action was undertaken as some of those on the flight were at risk of serious harm if forcibly deported. Ms. Strickland explained that the 15 had originally been charged with aggravated trespass, but that their charges were amended to endangering safety at an aerodrome under section 1 of the Aviation and Maritime Security Act 1990. This law was intended to address terrorist acts and carries a maximum sentence of imprisonment for life. Reflecting on the motivation behind this change in the nature of the Charges, Ms. Strickland believed that it was intended as a way of dissuading activists from taking direct action and delegitimising their non-violent direct action by associating it with terrorist acts. Following a troublingly long drawn out process, the activists were found guilty on 10 December 2018. In a statement made following their conviction, the Stansted 15 said: “These terror convictions and the ten-week trial that led to them are an injustice that has profound implications for our lives. The convictions will drastically limit our ability to work, travel and take part in everyday life. Yet, people seeking asylum in this country face worse than this: they are placed in destitution and their lives in limbo, by the Home Office’s vicious system every single day.”
Drawing upon previous historic examples of lawyers and human rights defenders such as Nelson Mandela who engaged in civil disobedience to defend human rights, Ms. Strickland emphasised the need for international solidarity and support from the UN bodies and international NGOs to the Stansted 15 in their appeal. She emphasised the critical difference that international monitoring and letters of support could make in these circumstances.
The second presentation was given by Swiss lawyer Annina Mullis, an executive member of the ELDH and representative from the Swiss Democratic Lawyers. Ms. Mullis presented on the case of Ahmed H, who was arrested on 16 of September 2015 after protests on the border crossing of Röszke, located between Hungary and Serbia. The protests had followed the Hungarian state’s decision to close its borders with Serbia the night before, which had created a situation whereby thousands had become stranded at the border and could no longer flee along the Balkan route. As a participant in the protest, Ahmed H. was arbitrarily arrested with ten refugees (the so-called “Röszke 11”) and charged with illegal border crossing and terrorism offences. By misrepresenting ‘evidence’, the Court punished Ahmed H. as a ‘leader’ and convicted him on November 2016 to a 10-year prison sentence which continued his de facto solitary confinement since September 2015.
In May 2017 the show trials against the Röszke 11 were condemned by a European Parliament resolution against Hungary. The Hungarian government responded by accusing the EU Parliament of supporting terrorism. Other well-known international organizations criticized the judgement sharply.
On 15th of June 2017, the Court of Appeal lowered his sentence to 5 years but the terrorism charge was controversially found to apply. In January 2019, Ahmed H. was released from prison on probation, expelled from Hungary and taken into custody by immigration police, who are negotiating his transfer to a possible reception country.
Carlos Orjuela of the Haldane Society and IADL bureau, spoke in his capacity as co-ordinator of Legal Centre Lesvos regarding the trial of the Moria 35. The case concerned 35 inhabitants of the Moria Reception and Identification Centre in Lesvos, who were brutalised and arrested by Greek police following a peaceful demonstration outside the EASO offices on 18 July 2017. The police had initially responded to the protest by tear gassing the protesters, later raiding the ‘African section’ of the camp once the protestors had dispersed. 34 of the 35 arrested were black, despite the relatively mixed nationalities taking part in the peaceful protest. 30 of the 35 were detained prior to trial, which took 9 months to finally proceed. The charges ranged from arson with intent to endanger life to terrorism offences.
Mr. Orjuela’s presentation focused primarily on the breaches of Article 6 of the European Convention of Human Rights which were starkly evident during the proceedings in Chios. Fundamental rights such as the right to a competent interpreter and equality of arms, were systematically disregarded in the 4 days trial, which provided each defendant approximately 3 and half minutes to give evidence in a trial which could have resulted in each one’s incarceration for a maximum of 10 years. Unsurprisingly, 32 of the 35 were found guilty of offences relating to the assault of police officers, despite there being an incredible lack of evidence incriminating any of the 35. Appeals have been lodged against the convictions and these will be heard in February 2020.
Mr. Orjuela called for international NGOs to monitor the situation of the Moria 35 and support those groups within civil society and politically organised refugees themselves in their attempts to resist criminalisation.
Evening Event at W23
The evening saw IADL and ELDH take part in an event hosted by Fluchthilfe & Du and prozess.report at W23, a political and cultural space created by various activist collectives in Vienna.
The event again focused on the criminalisation of refugees and pro refugee movement. It featured presentations from Melanie Strickland, Annina Mullis and Carlos Orjuela, as well as a showing of the documentary ‘Moria 35’
The event also featured presentations on the situation of refugee and migrant rights in Austria. Katarzyna Winiecka and Maria Zimmermann presented on four significant cases in Austria:
Katarzyna Winiecka spoke as the initiator and artist of the platform Fluchthilfe & Du (Border Crossing Service & You) on the trial of eight refugees, six of which had been active in the self-organised “Refugee Protest Camp Vienna”. Since 2012 the refugee group protested for months through occupations of public space, hunger strikes and media activism against the Austrian deportation and asylum system. While protesting deportations of friends within the movement, six members were arrested. They were faced accusations of being leaders of a violent transnational human smuggling network with an alleged profit of 30 million Euros through the facilitation of illegal migration to and through Europe. The defendants faced up to 10 years of imprisonment under §114 of the Aliens´ Police Law, which supposedly targets Human Smuggling. All major Austrian media outlets reported on the arrests, many on their front pages, delegitimising the protest movement. The detainees were withdrawn from public in pre-trial custody between 6 and 8 months. The trial lasted for 43 days and ended with the six refugee activists found guilty, both in the verdict of 2015 and in the appeals court in 2017. Most of the accusations were dropped, as police had committed substantial mistakes in the translations of thousands of wire-tapping protocols.
Nevertheless, the court found evidence, that the defendants had helped others within their refugee communities travelling through Europe to get on the right trains, giving them directions to Germany or providing them with food on their journey through Vienna and – in a few cases – accepting minor financial compensation for that assistance. The months served in pre-trial custody were taken into account, the rest of their sentence was suspended.
The #Fluchthilfeprozess, as the trial was called, was criminalising refugee anti-deportation activism and solidarity among and with refugees in Vienna and changed the activists´ public perception from political protagonists to criminals endangering the Austrian public. The movement did not survive its criminalisation, no similar refugee community protest structures have emerged in Austria since.
Ms. Winiecka mentioned, that the #Fluchthilfeprozess was sadly reminiscent of the political attack by the Austrian authorities against the black community protesting the death of Marcus Omofuma, a Nigerian refugee, who was gagged and thus suffocated by Austrian police on his deportation flight on 1 May 1999, 20 years ago. The death of Marcus Omofuma led to Austria´s largest protest movement of African migrants and refugees, which formed a broad alliance with anti-racist groups. On May 27, 1999 – 27 days after Omofuma’s death – hundreds of police officers stormed African migrant and refugee homes in a huge scale raid throughout Austria. The so-called Operation Spring was the biggest criminal police operation in Austria in the second republic. Over one hundred people were arrested, with individuals being accused of being members or leaders of a drug-trafficking network. Many arrested had to be released after a short time, while others were arrested for illegal stay and deported. The trials developed into one of the largest legal proceedings in Austrian post-war history. Many accused were sentenced to lengthy prison terms. Its relevant to mention, that the optical and acoustic observation tools used in preparation to Operation Spring was at that time in test runs. The quality of the recordings made it difficult or impossible to identify people. Main passages relevant to the procedure were incorrectly translated or could not be found anymore.
PAZ Hernals 6
Maria Zimmermann spoke as the chair person of the Viennese association for trial observation prozess.report on the trial of the so-called PAZ Hernals 6. On 14th of September 2018 a part of the deportation prison Hernalser Gürtel in Vienna (PAZ) was burning. A cell was set on fire by inmates in a resistance act against the imprisonment prior to their upcoming deportations. The six inmates were transferred to the prison Justizanstalt Wien Josefstadt.
The trial started with a disproportionally large number of police officers guarding the court room, which was criticised as an attempt to portray the detainees as dangerous individuals.
After more than 5 months in prison they were convicted. The sentences were lower than expected. Three of the defendants were brought back to the deportation prison right after release from pre-trial detention. They are still in danger of deportation.
More Information (in German):
Anatolische Föderation Österreich
Ms. Zimmermann also summarised the first convictions against a left, antifascist migrants movement – the Anatolian Federation Austria – which took place in March 2019. The group was accused of supporting a terrorist group in Turkey. Specifically, they were accused of supporting the Turkish DHKP-C with propaganda activities, spreading a (legal) Turkish weekly newspaper, organizing concerts of the Turkish band Grup Yorum and endorsing terrorist acts, for example at the demonstration on the 1st of May 2015 in Vienna. The case can be seen as part of current European-wide developments of criminalising the Turkish Radical Left. The case has hardly been addressed in the Austrian public.
Ms. Zimmermann also mentioned cases against individual Kurdish people living in Austria, accused of supporting the PKK.
More Information (in German):
The event finished with a fascinating question and answer session which lasted long into the evening regarding the cases mentioned, the history of the pro migrant/refugee movement and the role of progressive lawyers within these movements.
For more information regarding the above cases and organisations see: