The violence that arises out of forced deportation policies has been in the news in Austria, Germany and France where, last week, a police officer was convicted of the manslaughter of Ethiopian asylum seeker Mariame Getu Hagos in 2003.
Austria’s story begins with the intensely anti-foreigner atmosphere created by extremist parties in recent years. In the general election in October, two extreme-Right parties, the Freedom Party (FPÖ) led by Heinz-Christian Strache and the Alliance for Austria’s Future (BZÖ), led by Jörg Haider, vied as to which would be able to forcibly deport most asylum seekers and foreign criminals. The BZÖ promised that, should it come to power, it would, within three years, decrease the foreign population by thirty per cent. To push the point home, the streets of Vienna were plastered with posters promising ‘Foreigners Minus 30 per cent’.
Thus, the Austrian extreme Right created a climate hostile to foreigners. It was such a climate which led, in 1999, to the death on a Balkan Air flight from Vienna to Sofia, of (Ogoni) Nigerian asylum seeker Marcus Omofuma. He suffocated after being ‘taped up like a parcel’, with his mouth covered and nostrils partially sealed. Now, another scandal is rocking Austria. Four police officers have appeared in court for an attack on a Gambian during a forced deportation attempt in April 2006.
The Gambian, named only as Bakary J (who is married to an Austrian citizen), had completed a prison sentence for a drugs offence. On 7 April 2006, he was taken from pre-deportation detention to Vienna’s Schwechat airport. However, the deportation was stopped after the pilot refused to take him on board. The normal course of action would have been to return the man to the detention centre. Instead, the police officers are accused of driving him to a warehouse in the 2nd district of Vienna, that was used by the specialist police unit, WEGA, for training. According to lawyers, they then pulled Bakary J out of the car, put on their black helmets and hit and kicked him while he was lying on the ground. The police officers allegedly threatened to kill him with a grenade. They dragged him, bound, ‘around in the warehouse’ and ultimately drove a police vehicle into him from behind. The police officers’ squad leader asked him, ‘Do you know about Hitler?’. He answered, ‘Yes, I do, I heard he killed 6 million Jews’. The police officer responded, ‘I hate blacks and Jews. You will be number 6 million and one.’ The police officers then threatened Bakary J, with the words ‘We have orders to kill you’.
Bakary J’s lawyer says that his client was brutally attacked and subjected to what he would describe as a ‘mock execution’. He suffered fractures to his face and damage to his spine. The court doctor confirmed that the injuries were ‘severe in degree’. Lawyers for the police officers claim that they did not inflict the injuries, but that Bakary J injured himself as he fled the police car.
In handing down suspended prison sentences to the police officers, the judge argued that though they had engaged in ‘inexcusable behaviour’, their actions were a ‘slip-up’. In fact, the ‘mitigating circumstances’ were such, he argued, that he was delivering a verdict that would have no consequences for them. (During the trial, the police officers argued that their nerves had snapped, and presented themselves as victims of the deportation bureaucracy.)
Meanwhile, in Germany, the Hesse Refugee Council accused the state of a ‘frighteningly unconditional determination to deport’ after revelations about the treatment of a 20-year-old Kurdish man who was deported to Turkey on 5 September 2006 on a small specially-chartered plane. While in Austria, the authorities used Bakary J’s criminal record to justify the brutality of the deportation process, Serif Akbulut, who had lived in Germany since he was 12, and did not want to be parted for his parents who are seriously ill, has no criminal record. Despite his exemplary efforts to achieve a good education while caring for his parents, despite being well-integrated and speaking fluent German, he was treated during the deportation procedure as though ‘he were a top terrorist’. In fact there had been nationwide demonstrations in support of this exemplary young man and three previous attempts to deport him had failed when airline pilots refused to fly him out of the country against his will. Serif should be returned to Germany, the country ‘where he belongs’, argues Hesse Refugee Council.
During the third (failed) attempt to deport Serif, he says he was bound with Velcro, threatened, hit and had his fingers twisted. Such violence is not unusual. The Institute of Race Relations (IRR) pointed out in its 2005 report into the human rights abuses arising from deportation policies, that violence in the process has led to at least eleven deportation deaths in Germany, Belgium, Austria, France, UK, Hungary and Switzerland.
One of eleven deaths covered in The Deportation Machine was that of Mariame Getu Hagos who died in 2003, following a forced deportation from Roissy-Charles de Gaulle airport in France. Over two years later, the border police officers involved in the deportation were finally brought to court.
Mariame Getu Hagos, 24, died on 17 January 2002 after being taken ill on board an aircraft awaiting departure to Johannesburg from Roissy-Charles de Gaulle airport. Mariame, who was Ethiopian (initial reports suggested he was Somali), had arrived in France from South Africa five days previously and been held in the waiting zone of the airport while an asylum claim was considered, and rejected. He had refused to board the plane, saying that he was ill. But the doctor who examined him twice claimed that he was feigning illness. He died on the second deportation attempt whilst being restrained. In court, it emerged that officers had used the (now banned) ‘folding technique’ whereby Mariame, in handcuffs, was bent over his seat with his hands behind his back and held in that position for twenty minutes. Medical experts at the trial said that being placed in that position led to his death from suffocation. Mariame did not die instantly, but was taken in a coma to hospital, where he later died. An interior minister spokesman acknowledged at the time that ‘the immobilising techniques employed by the police escort may have contributed to the asphyxiation and death of this man’.
During the trial, the prosecution acknowledged that ‘gaps in training’ had contributed to the Ethiopian’s death. There had been no written rules for deportations. One of the officers who acknowledged that he had conducted around thirty escorted removals prior to Mariame’s death, said he just complied with orders. ‘We had no training at all. The “folding” technique was what was used when someone resisted.’
The case against the three border police officers involved was initiated by the public prosecutor of Bobigny (Seine Saint-Denis). All three were charged with manslaughter, but only one police officer was convicted. Rebuked for negligence and a failure to administer appropriate care, Axel Dallier received a six-months suspended prison sentence. All three police officers were initially suspended, but all were later reinstated. As in the case of Bakary J, the officers were portrayed as victims of a deportation bureaucracy that did not provide them with the kind of support and training they needed. No police officer in Europe has ever been jailed for the death of a person during the deportation process.
Read the introduction to the The Deportation Machine