• Book Review - Persecution: The Austrian §278a as an Example

  • Lutz Holzinger | 27 Oct 11 | Posted under: Austria , Reviews
  • It is not certain if the attacks on the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York on September 11, 2001 were the kick-off for the rollercoaster ride the financial markets have been on ever since. This careening up- and downhill has triggered upheavals in the entire global economy and serves as an excuse in Europe to abolish the bulk of social reforms which seem to have become superfluous after the implosion of the socialist states. On the other hand, there is no question that the justification used for the massive arming of police and the judiciary in both material and legal respects was and still is the 9/11 attack. What fell by the wayside in public debates is that these new regulations can without much ado be turned against the activists of social movements and political parties.

    In this sense, a book recently published in Vienna with the title §278a – Gemeint sind wir alle [The Target Is All of Us] – provides material for reflection. As its subtitle indicates, the volume is about the “Trial against the Animal Liberation Movement and its Background”. This spectacular trial was followed with great interest by both the Austrian and partly also the international press. According to the preface, “The trial which lasted for more than a year and drew to a close on May 2011 represents a further stage of repression against political activists in Austria. It was preceded by the destruction of the private life of the accused and their friends through the investigations of ‘Soko Bekleidung’ (a special police commission – L.H.), the storming and searching of 23 flats and offices in May 2008 and the ensuing arrest of ten animal-rights activists, on suspicion, among other things, of membership in a ‘a criminal organisation’ (§278a)”.

    The only positive aspect of this action by the police and the judiciary – which constituted a human-rights violation – is the acquittal of all the accused by the court in Wiener Neustadt. During the trial it had for a long time seemed that the judge would accept the prosecution’s flimsy argument and give the accused, who had for months been detained in pre-trial confinement, hefty prison sentences. Parallel verdicts against animal rights activists, with incredible sentences of up to 11 years of imprisonment, are legion in Great Britain and the USA.

    As in Wiener Neustadt, those prosecuted abroad were not accused of any concrete punishable actions. What was criminalised was the development and organisation of and participation in campaigns, demonstrations and actions, for example against the fur trade or for the liberation of animals. With very vague grounds for suspicion, the police managed to get permission to deploy methods of investigation whose public pretext was the “fight against terror and organised crime”: undercover investigations, electronic eavesdropping, planting Trojan viruses in PCs, etc.

    In her contribution to the book, Sophie Uitz considers the provisions which are formally directed against organised crime, the creation of gangs and the like: “Their use allows an excessive degree of surveillance and investigation … It is enough to present a – more or less contrived – initial suspicion for all the machinery of observation, surveillance and investigation by the state to be activated. The data thus collected – often the result of systematic surveillance carried out for years – allow a deep insight into the structures of interest to the state, without even having to cite a specific criminal offence.” (p. 257)

    The trial documents shows that despite months-long surveillance, the accused of Wiener Neustadt could not be accused of any concrete deeds; they had merely exploited the available legal avenues to demonstrate, protest and act against profit-oriented animal husbandry and use. Obviously, what triggered the action of the police and judiciary was the campaign organised by two animal rights organisations against the Kleider Bauer textile chain, because it did not refrain from marketing items of clothing made of fur or with fur trimmings. In the course of the campaign the activists organised go-ins, chainings, demonstrations, depositing of butyric acid, vigils in front of the private homes of leading company representatives and similar forms of action without the prosecution being able to establish that individual participants had committed criminal offences. Therefore the strategy was to let persons central to the organisations entrap themselves. In the end, the huge (investigative) effort did not have any (legal) effect.

    However, the everyday existence of the accused was massively affected – by ambush-style police invasions of their private flats, their pre-trial confinement for months and the trial itself which lasted for more than a year with on average three hearings at court a week. It is emphasised in one passage of the book that what helped the animal rights’ activists was their middle class background and their above-average educational level. By contrast, Operation Spring – in which 104 Africans were arrested on suspicion of drug dealing without any concrete evidence and with draconian prison terms blithely meted out – involved the severest consequences of a wiretap operation. The presumption of innocence had been suspended: Those who could not prove their innocence were sent to prison, often for years.

    Both examples show that the morass of anti-terror legal clauses is highly problematic in terms of democratic policy. This proliferation within the police and judiciary apparatuses, hardly controllable by the legislature, provides what it takes, if worst comes to worst, to allow the entire left to be put under general suspicion and be prosecuted, if those in power think it necessary and given the right political constellation.

    Christof Mackinger and Birgit Pack, §278a – Gemeint sind wir alle! [Paragraph 278a – The Target Is All of Us], Mandelbaum Verlag, Vienna 2011, 407 pages, Euro 16,90.

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