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Austria's Treatment of Minorities Challenged

Congo refugee says a police officer uttered a racial slur, attacking his dignity. Two courts have ruled the word was insulting, not harmful.

September 28, 2003|Susanna Loof | Associated Press Writer

VIENNA — The case of Sedou Nkumba-Tossanga versus the police, and its tortuous journey through the court system, is raising fresh questions about how Austria treats its minorities.

The refugee from Congo says a police officer who pulled him over on the highway called him by a racial slur. Under Austrian law, he says, this was a prosecutable attack on his menschenwuerde -- his human dignity.

Two Austrian courts say no.

They have ruled that the word, although insulting, was not harmful to Nkumba-Tossanga's human dignity. The case now heads to the Supreme Court, on a date not yet set.

The outcome matters because an attack on human dignity can be prosecuted by the state, but simple slander is a civil matter that the plaintiff must prosecute at his own expense.

In a larger sense, it also refocuses attention on Austria's problem with foreigners, highlighted by the rise of Joerg Haider's anti-immigrant Freedom Party in 2000. The party has since ebbed at the polls, but the racism issue hasn't. Just this summer, Austrians were shaken by videotape showing police standing and kneeling on a Mauritanian man who died after officers subdued him and a doctor injected him with a sedative.

But there has been scant discussion of the legalistic shadings that led the court in Linz, Nkumba-Tossanga's hometown 100 miles west of Vienna, to conclude that the insult "attacked the person's right to honor" yet "does not harm human dignity."

Talking about it by telephone, Nkumba-Tossanga still sounds upset.

He says the officer who pulled him over in July 2002 found nothing more than a highway tax sticker improperly affixed to the windshield and then, reluctantly handing him back his papers, delivered the insult.

Nkumba-Tossanga's lawyer, Helmut Blum, said the officer has denied uttering the slur. Three witnesses in the car -- Nkumba-Tossanga's wife, his 19-year-old daughter and a woman from their church -- insist that he did.

Interior Ministry spokesman Siegbert Lattacher declined to comment because the case is still in the court system.

Nkumba-Tossanga, 43, was himself a police officer in Congo before fleeing the war there in 1999 and receiving refugee status in Austria.

He said he and his family have since grown used to racial slurs, but not from police.

"We were so shocked. Why this discrimination?" he said. "We hear so much of these words -- from children, in restaurants, all over. But not from officials."

Blum passed the case to the state prosecutor, who agreed to pursue it but was rebuffed by the lower courts.

Blum is fighting on, saying Austria needs to be reminded of its obligations under international antiracism conventions that it has signed.

Nkumba-Tossanga wouldn't get more than $3,000 if he wins his case, but Blum says the money doesn't matter. "It is only that this policeman will have to take responsibility for what he was doing."

About 40,000 people applied for asylum in Austria last year -- 10,000 more than in 2001. This fall, Parliament is to debate legislation that would empower authorities to adjudicate asylum requests within 72 hours and deport unsuccessful applicants without any legal right to appeal before expulsion.

Critics, including the U.N. refugee agency and Amnesty International, say the deadline makes well-informed decisions impossible.

Meanwhile, Lattacher, the Interior Ministry spokesman, says efforts are being made to improve relations between police and foreigners. He cites a Vienna program that brings together police officers and black Africans to improve communication, and says it may go national if it proves effective.

In its 2002 report, ZARA, a group that monitors racist incidents, cites such cases as police making a black man strip on the street and photographing him, and beating a black man and holding him for hours because passers-by wrongly thought that he had hit his daughter.

"In Austria, there are policemen who are very good but, unfortunately, there are others who have different behavior," said Maria Perez Solla, a legal counselor for ZARA.

"Unfortunately, there is lack of prevention and quick remedies."

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