A Special Report by Aurora Weiss
VIENNA (IDN) — Austria’s capital is home to 20 international United Nations offices and organisations seated at the Vienna International Centre. But law enforcement in this country falls short of the UN’s requirements.
The United Nations Convention against Corruption, for example, calls for independent bodies or persons specialized in combating corruption through law enforcement that can “carry out their functions effectively and without any undue influence”.
In Austria, the Directorate General for Public Security, which is the governing body of general law enforcement, is a division of the Ministry of the Interior—which oversees the Federal Police, the Criminal Intelligence Service, and the Intelligence Directorate—and is, therefore, not free from “any undue influence” of the Ministry.
In fact, this is what the ‘Austrian Center for Law Enforcement—an independent body—finds in its “Study on dealing with allegations of ill-treatment by law enforcement officials from 2018”. It points out that between 2012 and 2015, ALES examined a total of 772 files from the public prosecutor’s offices in Vienna and Salzburg.
These documented 1,518 allegations of abuse against law enforcement officials. In Salzburg, all 233 procedures were discontinued. (A discontinued procedure is one that is cancelled or not fully accomplished under the procedure definition.) In Vienna, only seven criminal complaints were filed by the prosecutor’s office. Only one led to a conviction.
Furthermore, according to the study, in 10 per cent of the cases, the police filed a counter-notice alleging defamation against the person who had alleged mistreatment.
According to ALES, the fact is that if there are any criminal investigations, these usually come to nothing. This is because police officers investigate their own colleagues. This leads to conflicts of interest and a lack of impartiality on the part of the officers involved. A strong esprit de corps within the police can also lead to police officers covering up for each other.
Co-author of the study, University Prof Dr Christian Grafl from the Institute of Criminal Law and Criminology, said: “From our side, we did what we could. Everything else is a matter of political will.”
The United Nations Committee Against Torture (CAT) has asked Austria to ensure that allegations of torture, cruelty and abuse of power by police forces are “promptly, effectively and impartially investigated”. [Read also: https://www.omct.org/en/what-we-do/committee-against-torture]
The European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CPT), an institution of the Council of Europe, has also recommended that Austria set up an independent body to investigate allegations of mistreatment committed by police officers.
Investigations by Amnesty International have shone a light, among other things, on police crimes associated with sex, drug and profit-motivated police crimes.
A journalist reported a case of sexual harassment by a police officer. Based on the photos from the security camera, the perpetrator was identified, and she began to experience torture by his colleagues, or better said, institutional torture by the Austrian police.
However, this shocking case on more than 400 pages showed not only the corruption within the Austrian police but also the deep-rooted connection with the public prosecutor’s office regarding the cover-up of crimes with false statements, documentation or silence.
In the book ‘Police Code of Silence in Times of Change (2022)’, the chapter entitled ‘Lessons Learned About the Code of Silence’ emphasizes “the role that the police officers’ organizational attitudes play in their willingness to adhere to the code of silence, from their perceptions of how willing other police officers are to report misconduct and the severity of the disciplinary threat that their police agency is making, to their perceptions of self-legitimacy and organizational justice”.
That’s why police leadership must ensure an effective internal disciplinary system that is applied in a fair way. This includes dealing with complaints from civilians and extends to procedures for officers to complain about their colleagues, for example, in situations of sexual violence or harassment.
Effective internal discipline also requires a system to prevent unethical behaviour, including corruption and the solicitation of bribes, as well as corruption within the force. In one form of corruption, organized criminal networks bribe or blackmail police officers into selling information or disrupting major investigations.
In Austria, reports against police officers usually end up at the Federal Office for Combating Corruption (BAK), which is a department within the Ministry of Interior and is not independent at all.
Since July 2022, the BAK has a new director, Otto Kerbl. Previously, he headed the office on an interim basis for two years after director Andras Wieselthaler was faced with allegations of sexual harassment of female employees in the so-called “Bathrobe affair”.
As the Austrian press reported, female employees accused the high-ranking official of naked “appearances” in a bathrobe and humiliation. As an explanation for this, the BAK head stated that he jogs to work every day and then takes a shower there. He was transferred to another department of the Ministry of Interior. Besides, the Department for Combating Corruption does not have political autonomy because the Ministry of the Interior and the BAK officials are largely associated with The Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP).
The problem of impunity
The ALES report of February 9, 2018, stated that in proceedings in ‘criminal cases against organs of the security authorities due to allegations of mistreatment’, there are sometimes lively (telephone) contacts between the investigating criminal police and the responsible public prosecutor.
This communication usually works well but is not consistently comprehensively documented. The study suggested that there could be a structural problem—both in the Ministry of Interior as well as in the Federal Ministry for the Constitution, Reforms, Deregulation and Justice (BMVRDJ)—and that related to the importance of the documentation and its appropriate handling.
But investigations against police officers end in the hands of public prosecutors who are supervised by the Ministry of Justice. Responsibility for outcomes of investigations or lack thereof lies with that Ministry. Therefore, when we talk about the perpetrators, we can, of course, refer to the employees of the Ministry of the Interior, but when we talk about their impunity, we should point the finger at the Ministry of Justice and remove the blindfold from their eyes.
Image credit: Amnesty International, Austria.
Austrian police are out of control.
The present Austrian government has promised changes the in the current structures. The government program for 2020-2024, presented in January 2020, envisages the establishment of an “independent investigation agency” to investigate mistreatment by police officers.
Austrian federal government promised that such a concept would have been available by autumn 2020. and that it would include Amnesty International and the ombuds commission as an advisory body. This assurance was given by the former Minister of the Interior and now Federal Chancellor Karl Nehammer. But the bottom line is that nothing has happened since January 2
“If this government does not tackle this important project, it will not only fail to implement its largest human rights project, but above all, it will have to take responsibility for ensuring that police violence in Austria continues to go unpunished in many cases. Amnesty, therefore, demands a quick implementation of the Independent Investigation and Complaints Office project as well as a binding timetable for the reform,” said Amnesty International Advocacy Teresa Exenberger during our meeting in the Vienna office.
The idea of such an independent body is not new.
Considering that Austria is crying out for an independent body that would supervise and inspect the police but does not know what it would look like, we have collected recommendations. However, what is important to point out is that it would be useful for the same body to supervise the public prosecutor’s office in order to oversee documentation and the process itself, including the final verdict.
For police accountability to be fully effective, it must involve multiple actors and institutions performing multiple roles to ensure that police operate in the public interest. As these actors and institutions often represent particular interests, it is crucial to have a complementary independent institution overseeing the entire system. Independent bodies include national human rights institutions, also known as human rights commissions, operating under the Paris Principles.
The United Nations Convention against Corruption calls for independent bodies or persons specialized in combating corruption through law enforcement that can “carry out their functions effectively and without any undue influence” (article 36). For this, the independent body should have complete discretion in the performance or exercise of its functions and not be subject to the direction or control of a minister or any other party.
In principle, it should be held accountable to parliament to parliament and not to the executive authorities. The independent body should also receive sufficient funds separate from the police budget. Furthermore, there must be a fair and transparent appointment process for the body’s commissioners or councillors as well as its staff, which should be based on merit rather than on political or any other affiliation. Preferably, commissioners should be appointed for a fixed period of time, and there should be a strict procedure for their removal.
For example, in the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland, the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) has a statutory fixed-term period, not only to bring in fresh perspectives but also to avoid any complacency, productive or otherwise, due to too long a period of time for a relationship to develop between the police and Commissioners.
Worldwide, the police are characterized by what is referred to as the “blue curtain of secrecy” and ”code of silence” when fellow officers commit unethical actions. In such a culture, valuing loyalty over integrity facilitates misconduct by keeping it concealed.
Any attempt to enhance police integrity needs to be accompanied by measures to enhance transparency and stimulate a culture of openness; in other words, a professional ethos in which awareness of and respect for accountability during police actions is fully ingrained. Police leadership will have to take the lead in realizing this.
Here are examples of independent investigations bodies that exist elsewhere: England and Wales Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC); Queensland Crime and Corruption Commission (CCC); Victoria The Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission (IBAC); British Columbia, Canada Office of the Police Complaint Commissioner; and EU Union/International The Independent Police Complaints Authorities’ Network (IPCAN). [IDN-InDepthNews – 24 December 2022]
Photo: (L to R) Assoc. Prof. Mag. Dr. Farsam Salimi; Univ. Prof. Dr. Susanne Reindl-Krauskopf, Hon. Prof. (The University of Queensland); Univ. Prof. Dr. Christian Grafl. Credit: ALES.
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