FECL 48 (November 1996):

COUNCIL OF EUROPE REPORT ON AUSTRIAN POLICE: 'TORTURE-LIKE PRACTICES'

Persons detained by the Austrian Security Police are exposed to the risk of torture-like treatment, a report by the Council of Europe’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT) concludes. The disclosure of the CPT’s remarkable findings was delayed for almost two years by the Austrian Government.

The CPT report is based on a visit of a CPT delegation composed of jurists, doctors and experts on sentencing to Austria in the autumn of 1994, and was adopted in March 1995. The CPT inspected a number of police detention facilities and penal institutions both in Vienna and in the provinces.

 

Plastic bags, electro-shocks and "bath tub" treatment

Under the rubric "Torture and other forms of ill-treatment" the report relates numerous allegations of ill-treatment, most of which concern the Sicherheitsbüro (Security Police Office) in Vienna.

One detainee told the CPT delegates that he was subjected to suffocation during interrogation by the Drugs service officials at the Security Office. The detainee claimed his hands were hand-cuffed behind his back and a plastic bag placed over his head and tightened around his neck. He said he was subjected to this treatment several times.

The CPT delegation also heard allegations from several sources that persons detained by the Security Office in Vienna in February and March 1994 were subjected to electric shocks. None of the detainees met by the delegation claimed that he had undergone such a treatment himself. However, different members of the delegation separately met several detainees who stated they had been threatened with electric shocks during their interrogation at the Security Office. The detainees concerned all described a portable device resembling an electric razor.

Moreover, a "considerable number" of detainees claimed they had been threatened with the "bath tub" treatment (in which the head of the victim is held under water).

The report notes that while it is difficult, if not impossible, to obtain medical evidence confirming the forms of ill-treatment described above, numerous allegations of other forms of serious ill-treatment by personnel at the Security Office and a number of police stations in Vienna and the Criminal Investigation Service at Vienna-Schwechat airport are "consistent" with medical records made available to the delegation.

The CPT therefore concludes that there is "a serious risk of ill-treatment for persons held by the police. . . This conclusion is particularly pertinent with regard to persons deprived of liberty, who are the subject of an investigation led by officials of the Security Office in Vienna".

 

Police detention localities at Schwechat airport

The CPT strongly criticises conditions of detention at the police detention facilities in Schwechat, near the Vienna international airport. All of the five persons held in that prison at the time of the CPT visit were foreigners awaiting deportation.

The report notes that the cells are extremely small (Individual cells: 4.5 m2), double cells: 7 m2), triple cells: 9 m2)). Detainees are not offered any activities whatsoever and are denied outdoor exercise.

In the light of the above, the CPT was "very troubled" by the fact that four of the five people detained at the time of the delegation’s visit had almost reached the maximum six month term of detention pending deportation. The report therefore recommends "immediate action" to ensure that nobody be held for more than 48 hours in the detention facilities of the Schwechat police.

More generally, the report notes that persons deprived of liberty on foreigners law grounds represent the largest category of detainees in Austrian police prisons visited by the delegation. This entails specific problems, the report stresses. Among other things, "many foreign nationals will find it hard to bear the fact of being detained although they are not suspected of any criminal offence".

 

Penal institutions

As regards penal institutions, run by the Ministry of Justice, the report notes some deficiencies in areas such as hygiene, access to medical care, equal treatment of foreigners, and the suitability of premises. But the CPT notes that detainees in penal institutions run very little risk of being subjected to ill-treatment by the personnel.

 

CPT dissatisfied with police internal inquiries

Not for the first time, the CPT expresses harsh criticism of the treatment of detainees by police and, in particular, the Security Office in Vienna. A CPT report of 1990 made similar accusations to those of the 1994 report. At that time, the Austrian Government responded by ordering the police to carry out internal inquiries. The CPT does not consider this a satisfactory measure. In its 1994 report it expresses concern at the fact that various police services undertake inquiries into each other: "For example, officers of the Security Office investigated allegations brought against officials of the police station of the first district, while the latter investigated allegations concerning officials of the Security Office". Moreover, "it has appeared that officers charged with investigating allegations were not hierarchically superior to the offers against whom the allegations had been brought". The report dryly notes that "such a situation is unlikely to promote the best possible initial examination of the allegations".

 

CPT recommends independent inquiry

The 1994 CPT report contains a number of recommendations to the Austrian government aimed at the prevention of ill-treatment and torture-like practices. Above all the CPT recommends that a body made of "independent persons" be set up "without delay" with a mandate to run a general and comprehensive inquiry into "the methods used by police officers of the Security Office" when they detain and question suspects. Other recommendations concern better training of police personnel in human rights and "modern methods of interrogation", as well as a clear messages from the police hierarchy that ill-treatment of detainees will be severely punished.

 

Belated and evasive Austrian reply

In spite of the extreme gravity of the accusations made in the CPT report, the Austrian Government was obviously in no hurry to reply. Its comments on the CPT report were made privately on 28 June 1996, and the Government authorised the publication both of the CPT report and its own comments only in October 1996. Considering this, it is quite remarkable that the comments fail to address the very concrete allegations of torture made in the CPT report. The fact that no attempt is made to refute the CPT’s accusations strongly suggests that the Austrian Government itself has come to the conclusion that cases of torture-like ill-treatment as described in the report have actually occurred. Yet, nothing in the Austrian comments indicates that the government has taken any concrete steps to identify and punish the police officials involved, despite the fact that the accusations are based on witness accounts. One is therefore obliged to conclude that the torturers are still at work in Vienna’s Security Office.

Moreover, two years after the CPT delegation’s visit, the Austrian government has still not complied with the CPT’s most important recommendation - the immediate creation of an independent committee of inquiry.

Instead, the Austrian government’s comments abound with lengthy descriptions of draft laws and reform projects "under way". As regards the main recommendation by the CPT, the Austrian authorities are still "working on the creation of an independent body", which will be composed of "respected persons from the universities and the justice department".

 

"Day against violence" after years of police abuse?

The Austrian government is "working on" even greater projects: "It is desirable that security officers should give increasing thought to what it means to be a professional police or gendarmerie officer, and in this context more will be done to foster problem awareness concerning the root causes of all forms of violence in police work. Against this background, the Federal Ministry of the Interior is considering organising a "Day against Violence" on an experimental basis".

 

"Special training in interrogation techniques"

The Austrian comments further emphasise that Austrian police legislation already includes provisions concerning Human Rights and "Ways of handling people involved". Moreover, police interrogators receive "special training in interrogation techniques".

 

Muted reaction in Austria

Reactions in Austria to the CPT report are remarkably low-key. At a time of strong calls for law and order, the mass media do not appear keen to question tough police action against crime. Moreover, according to Rudi Leo, the Austrian Green Party’s expert on policing, the problem of police abuse has long been well known to the public and the obvious unwillingness of various governments to take any action has fostered a climate of general apathy. Thus the strongest reaction to the CPT report came not from police critics, but from police officers.

 

Far-right police association yearns for electro-shock batons

AUF is the rapidly-expanding association of police officers of Jörg Haider’s far-right "Freedom Party". The AUF came to public attention two years ago by demanding that Austrian police officers be equipped with pump guns and . . . electro-shock batons.

Commenting on the CPT report, AUF president Michael Kreissl turned the suspected perpetrators into victims: "Who actually protects us from such completely baseless and monstrous accusations?", the AUF boss thundered in a clear hint at the Social Democrat Interior Minister Einem whose resignation AUF has tried to force ever since his nomination in 1995 (see FECL No.34: "The entry of Interior Minister Caspar Einem: Austria on the eve of change?").

 

Electro-shock weapons prohibited but easily available in Austria

The possession and use of electro-shock devices is prohibited under Austrian law, and plans to equip the police with electronic batons were dropped after a period of apparently unconvincing police-internal tests. But pocket-size electro-shock weapons are easily available on the black market in Austria.

Amnesty International, among other human rights organisations, is campaigning against the production and sale of electro-shock devices, regarded as the "torturers’ universal tool" (see FECL No.31: "Electro-shock weapons: the 'torture trail'", No.43: "Back on the Torture Trail"). Hitherto, AI’s concern has focused on sales to countries such as Turkey, China and Saudi Arabia. In view of the CPT report, it would seem advisable to add the EU member state Austria on the list.

 

Sources: Report to the Austrian Government regarding the visit of the CPT in Austria of 26 September to 7 October 1994 (in French), Council of Europe, Strasbourg, 31.10.96, CPT/Inf (96) 28 (Quotations from the report are our translations from French); Comments of the Republic of Austria on the CPT report, Vienna, 28.6.96, CPT/Inf (96) 29; Der Standard, 2/3.11.96, 8.11.96; Die Presse, 2.11.96; Neue Zürcher Zeitung, 4.11.96.