Austrian police's racial incidents piling up

Oleksyn writes for the Associated Press.

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.

Critics say the incident has highlighted discrimination in a country where Amnesty International says migrants and people of color are more likely to be suspected of crimes than whites and are regularly denied their right to equal treatment by the police and judicial system.

Brennan, a soft-spoken physical education and English teacher who has lived in Austria for about four years, says the officers who attacked him February 11 failed to identify themselves and simply left him lying on the platform once they realized their mistake.

The Vienna Police Department put out a statement saying it regretted the mix-up but never suspended those involved. Prosecutors soon expect to decide whether to indict the officers or drop the case.

The former American football player from Jacksonville, Fla., says he could not work for months because of injuries to his back, head, neck, hand and wrist. He wants the police to acknowledge that what they did was wrong.

"They apologized for the mix-up -- but not for the beating," he said.

Wilfried Embacher, Brennan's lawyer, argues that the officers should go on trial for assault.

Brennan, who teaches at the Vienna International School, a private institution for expatriates, said he's not just fighting for himself.

"I'm fighting for everyone," Brennan said. "If nothing changes now, I don't know about the future."

Minorities in other European countries share Brennan's fears.

A recent Europe-wide study by the Vienna-based EU Fundamental Rights Agency found that 55% 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.

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. Three policemen came to the man's apartment after a neighbor complained about noise. The other two were charged with misuse of power for not intervening. Police have apologized in a letter sent to the Vietnamese Embassy.

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 that 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 that Austrian police have engaged in widespread ethnic profiling over the last 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.

"I'm afraid that the police's role as friend and protector doesn't apply to everyone," said Beatrice Achaleke, executive director of the Vienna-based, nonprofit International Center for Black Women's Perspectives, who has lived in Austria for 14 years.

Achaleke, who is originally from Cameroon and is also president of the Black European Women's Council, said she worries that her son, 8, could be harassed once he becomes old enough to go out at night.

"If he goes to a dance club and something happens, it's clear he'll be among the first to be questioned by police," she said.

Still, Austria is a popular destination for immigrants because it is a safe and wealthy nation where job prospects are relatively good compared with other European countries. This spring, the Mercer consulting firm ranked Vienna as the city with the world's overall highest quality of living. While taxes are high, Austrians enjoy universal healthcare, 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. The majority of them -- 292,730 -- are from nations created out of the former Yugoslavia. Additionally, 110,678 are from Turkey, 59,538 from Asia and 21,460 from Africa.

Brennan stresses that he is not against the police or Austrians in general, adding that perfect strangers have come up to him to wish him well.

And experts acknowledge that mistakes happen.

"But what counts is how authorities deal with them," said Wolfgang Zimmer, an official at ZARA, an Austrian anti-racism group that logged 704 racist incidents last year alone from victims and others contacting the organization.

To Brennan's supporters, many of whom recently gathered for a benefit concert to help him pay his lawyer fees, it's about making amends and giving a voice to other victims.

"It's a matter of dignity," said Albert Frantz, a 34-year-old pianist. "Mike's case is part of something larger -- he's one of many."

Patrick Bongola, a musician who grew up in Kinshasa, now the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo, said racism is part of everyday life.

"You learn to live with it," said Bongola, who moved to Austria 18 years ago.

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

"The sad thing is that Austrian civil society doesn't have the guts to speak out," Bongola said.

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Karel Janicek in Prague, Czech Republic, and Karl Ritter in Stockholm contributed to this report.

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