Kafka in Vienna

Josef S. was sentenced yesterday by the Vienna Criminal Court to a prison sentence of one year (eight months of which are conditional on a three-year probation) for breach of peace (as ringleader), attempted aggravated assault and aggravated criminal property damage. [Update: The verdict is not final and may be appealed.] The prosecution against Josef was an attack on the rights of free speech and free assembly. His conviction is a disgusting perversion of law and justice.

24 January 2014

On 24 January, Vienna witnessed this year’s iteration of a tradition of Austrian fascists and the far-right (including racist student fraternities and the Freedom Party, the political roots of which lie in post-World-War-II Nazi movements), the “Academics Ball”, which serves as a prominent networking event and party for Austrian and European right-wing politicians and activists. A more recent tradition was also honored, namely anti-fascist counterprotests against the ball.

A small portion of the approximately 6000 counterprotesters turned to violence. Police riot units were attacked, shop windows smashed and a police station and a police car were vandalized.

Josef S., a 23-year-old student from Jena, Germany, took part in the protest. He was arrested and charged as a ringleader of the violent mob, allegedly commanding the black bloc. He was jailed on remand, where he was kept until today, about half a year.

At trial, only evidence for police incompetence

It emerged that the main incriminating witness was an undercover police officer who had observed and followed Josef S. at the protest. Josef S. wore a distinctive sweater, which aided his later identification in photographs and video. The undercover police officer first claimed that he had heard Josef S. shout commands at black bloc protesters before and during the protest and that Josef S. took part in damaging the police station, throwing a smoke bomb into the police car. It turned out, however, that this witness was the only evidence against Josef S. Furthermore, his testimony proved false when an expert opinion found that the voice identified by the witness as Josef S.’s was, in fact, not his. Strong evidence to the police’s and prosecutions’ incompetence was revealed before and at trial:

  • The undercover police officer recorded video on his personal cellphone during the protest and later deleted some at his own discretion.
  • He lost contact with the two other officers who accompanied him and was arrested himself for a short time until he could prove that he was a police officer.
  • He wrote his mission report only after watching several news reports and YouTube videos about the protest.
  • The jacket Josef S. wore at the protest was seized from his cell only ten days after his arrest, his gloves only four months later. An expert found minute traces of pyrotechnics on his gloves (but not on other clothes; the expert testified that this does not prove that Josef S. actually handled any pyrotechnics).
  • Finally, on the night of the protest, police were woefully unprepared for any escalation, despite their loud-mouthed propaganda beforehand, warning against “protest tourists from Germany” and other shameful inflammatory remarks. When some of the protesters turned violent, they vastly outnumbered police, most of whom were not from Vienna and therefore unfamiliar with the terrain.

Numerous police officers who were at the scene when the police station was attacked denied spotting Josef S. there. Further testimony from police officers who were at the location of the initial outbreak of violence also did not place him there. Video from a camera crew and a store surveillance camera only made it clear that Josef S. was near the violent protesters, which he never denied. The videos further established that Josef S. was too far away at the time of the recording to reach the damaged police station at the time of the attack. Two freelance photographers testified that upon review of all their photos of the protest, they could not establish any connection between Josef S. and any violent acts.

Shaky verdict

Despite the lack of any corroborating evidence, the court (consisting of one professional judge as presiding judge and two lay judges) convicted Josef S. on the testimony of the undercover police officer alone. The presiding judge noted that the witness was credible and that Josef S.’s actions were highly suspect, namely his participation in the protest near violent protesters; that he righted a trash can that was toppled over (supposedly indicating that he later used the trash can to attack the police); and that he had obtained an Austrian phone number and SIM card (the judge wondered why a peaceful protester with a German phone number would need this).

Why it matters

Dead law, resurrected

Josef S. was convicted for breach of the peace, Section 274 of the Austrian Penal Code[link in German]. The statute is very seldomly applied; it was not even discussed in my criminal law classes. In short, it criminalizes “knowing participation in a mob that intends to commit murder, manslaughter, assault or aggravated criminal property damage”. Obviously, this could be used to prosecute a large group of people engaged in protests guaranteed by the right of free speech and free assembly, as long as some violence occurs. Perhaps surprisingly, the Austrian criminal justice system has only recently made such use of the statute. Josef S. was convicted under the more serious charge of leading a breach of the peace.

To judges, police is infallible

During sentencing, Josef S.’s judge strongly emphasized the credibility and reliability of the police officer who testified against S. He downplayed the officer’s contradictions with his own testimony and other evidence. In particular, he stressed that the witness has no reason to lie and incriminate Josef S. This narrow view is not sustainable. While the police officer may not have any quarrels with Josef S. personally, he had a manifest interest in securing the conviction of a person arrested and strongly incriminated by police (specifically by the officer in question himself); an acquittal of Josef S. would have elevated the obvious incompetence of the police to a legal certainty.

The verdict emphasizes the strong bond between police, prosecutors and judges in Austria. A strong belief in authority pervades the populace and the police is infested with a strangling esprit de corps. Our constitution and statutory law considers both prosecutors and judges part of the judiciary, which in various ways leads to a lack of role awareness and role fulfillment, as well as strong bonds between the two institutions, which in turn increases incentives for judges to convict.

Chilling effects

Besides the application of Section 274 mentioned above, the verdict sends a clear message: The state does not approve of statements of civic convictions on the streets. It regards dedication to political, conscientious and moral causes as suspect; more so if these causes belong to the political left, or if the person in question taken upon him/her the burden of travelling to a neighboring country.

In summary:

This affects Josef S., but it addresses us all.

 Sources (in German)

Vienna’s Finest – at Beating

Note: Many sources and links in this article are in German. These are marked with [DE].

Xenophobes march through Vienna

On 17 May 2014, the parafascist “Identitäre” movement staged a demonstration[DE] in Vienna. The group advocates xenophobia, race- and faith-based policy[DE], ethnic cleansing[DE] and a “return to traditional, Christian European values”[DE]. Up to 200 people from Austria with support from France, Germany and Hungary marched through town to wave their flags and disseminate their hate speech. It was the first significant right-wing demonstration in Vienna in years[DE]. Among others, Ludwig Reinthaler attended, a Neo-Nazi from Upper Austria whose political party was barred from participating in elections due to the imminent danger of re-engaging Naziism[DE].

Several organizations more or less from the political left (among them the University of Vienna Student Union) sought to block the Identäre march to demonstrate that they are not tolerated here. That strategy had been successful before in Germany, where even the President of Parliament participated[DE] in a sit-in to block a Nazi demonstration.

Vice News provides a very brief summary in this video:

 Police collaborates with Identitäre

The Vienna police made all efforts to enable the Identitäre to carry out their march. Under the guise of enabling the Identitäre’s legal demonstration, the police guided them around the counter-protesters. When the pressure from the counter-protest increased, one police officer told the Identitäre “Friends, it’s getting tight. […] I suggest we go to the subway and end this.” (My translation from the original German quote[DE]; emphasis added.)

At some point, the police seized a banner from the counter-protesters. The Identitäre posed with this banner a few hours later, without any explanation how they got hold of this confiscated banner.

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ACAB and Soldiers Are Murderers – Two bourgeois slogans

Many leftist individuals and groups like to use the acronym ACAB as a slogan. It stands for “All Cops Are Bastards” and, obviously, expresses disdain for the police. Similarly, purported pacifists and anti-militarists use the slogan “Soldiers Are Murderers” (which appears to be more common in German-speaking countries).

Both slogans are strong, generalized statements. As such, they label an entire group of people and, by their internal logic, do not allow for any exceptions. This is the basic reason why these and similar slogans are not just factually wrong, but actually advance goals counter to those of the people most commonly using the slogans.
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Will the Shoa be historically unique?

I recently heard the following:

Antizionism after Auschwitz is, necessarily, antisemitism.

It got me thinking about a question which, I believe, influences many discussions on the Shoa (Holocaust), on the establishment and status of the state of Israel and on antisemitism:

Is (or was) the Shoa a historically unique occurrence? Continue reading

A Lawsuit’s Purpose

When thinking about a recent spat on my Twitter timeline (involving protests against traffic tickets perceived as unfair), a train of thought I have had many times already surfaced again:

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Liberal vs. Prohibitive society

Under any law, any given action is either permitted or prohibited. Under a liberal set of laws, anything is permitted unless it is expressly prohibited. Under a prohibitive set of laws, anything is prohibited unless expressly allowed.

In Western Liberal Democracies (a term we use in debating to denote a more or less coherent group of countries where classically liberal and democratic values are largely observed), the general idea has been to maintain liberal societies, where the state may only prohibit some specific actions which society deems harmful or dangerous.

I don’t think we live in such a society any more (if we ever have). More specifically, it does not seem that people think this way. Instead, when I hear people complain about something, they ask “Why is this permitted?”, “Why does the state allow this?” or “I can’t believe this is allowed!” Such statements express a sentiment that everything is prohibited unless allowed (and, even worse: allowed specifically only be the state, an authority we did not create ourselves). Where does this sentiment come from?

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