- 83,871 sq km
- Total Population
- 8,364,000 (UN 2009)
- Prison Rate
- 104 (per 100,000 of national population)
- Capital Punishment
- abolished, ratified ICCPR-OP2
- ratified (1987)
- ratified (2012)
- Volksanwaltschaft (Austrian Ombudsman Board)
After WWI the large Austrian-Hungarian Empire shrank to a small republic nearly the size of today’s territory. In 1938, Austria chose for the annexation to Nazi Germany, and subsequently taking part in the atrocities of the holocaust and the Second World War. Since 1955 the Austrian State Treaty guarantees independence and neutrality but the country has struggled with the coming to terms with the past.
Politically, Austria is nowadays a democratic republic and for most of the time since 1955, a coalition of the Social Democratic Party (SPÖ) and the centre-right Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) has governed the country. From 2000-2007, Austria was led by a centre-right coalition, including the right-wing populist Freedom Party (FPÖ) of Jörg Haider, what resulted in sanctions being imposed on Austria by the member states of the European Union in 2000.
Austria, member of the EU since 1995, has a stable and well-developed market economy closely tied to other European countries, particularly Germany, and living standards are generally high. Due to the very little availability of natural resources, the country’s economy is largely dominated by the services sector accounting for just over two-thirds of the GDP. Besides efforts to consolidate the economy, Austria remains confronted with the challenges of an ageing population and a low birth-rate.
Despite a relatively high level of human rights protection which is guaranteed at the constitutional level, there were several reports of excessive use of force by the police as well as an increasing number of xenophobic and racist incidents during the last years.1
Migration and asylum have been a controversially discussed topic on the political agenda, often driven by xenophobic rhetoric of right-wing politicians and poor media coverage. Legislation regarding migration and aliens’ rights has been continuously tightened. Human rights experts, NGOs as well as international organisations such as the UNHCR repeatedly criticised the new provisions for undermining the provision of meaningful and effective asylum procedures and falling short of protecting the rights of those in need. Concerns were raised by the Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT) in their mission report of 2010 regarding the accommodation of foreign nationals awaiting deportation in some of the police detention centres (Polizeianhaltezentrum – PAZ).
Situation of Torture and Ill-Treatment
Austria ratified the majority of international human rights conventions including the CAT in 1987 and the ICCPR in 1978. The European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms has constitutional status. In 2003, the country signed the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture (OPCAT). It has designated the Austrian Ombudsman Board as National Preventive Mechanism (NPM) and finally ratified the OPCAT in December 2012. As of May 2012, the Austrian Ombudsman Board only holds “B-Status” according to the International Coordinating Committee of NHRIs, thus not being in full compliance with the Paris Principles.2
Following years of discussions and a series of recommendations by the Committee against Torture3 and the Austrian Ombudsman Board4 to incorporate a definition of torture into the Criminal Code, in December 2012, the National Council passed an amendment law that introduces a new provision on torture into the Criminal Code (effective as of 1 January 2013). The crime of torture is incorporated in the new Article 312a. The formulation is very similar to the definition of torture in Article 1 UNCAT and also entails all of the respective elements. Article 312a foresees prison sentences from one to ten years. In case of a bodily harm with severe long-term impacts, the range of punishment is five to fifteen years and in case of death, the perpetrator will face sentences from ten to twenty years or life imprisonment.
The Austrian Ombudsman Board, performing the NPM function, has established decentralised commissions that are assigned with the task of monitoring places of deprivation of liberty including correctional institutions, barracks, police stations, psychiatric facilities and long-term care facilities. The commissions are also entitled to observe police operations, in particular deportations, demonstrations and major events, to control the compliance with national law and to detect possible human rights infringements. There were concerns among civil society organizations about the full independence of the NPM.5
Practice of Torture and Ill-Treatment
Torture and ill-treatment in Austria is limited to isolated but alarming cases. Overwhelmingly, persons of foreign origin have been the victims. One such case is the case of the Nigerian asylum seeker Marcus Omofuma who suffocated during his deportation at the hands of three policemen in 2000. The incident triggered the creation of the Menschenrechtsbeirat (Human Rights Advisory Board) upon the recommendation of the CPT.
Nevertheless, further cases of abuse and death occurred. In 2005, Cheibani Wague, a student from Mauritania died during an arrest due to lack of oxygen to the brain and irreversible failure of the circulatory system after being fixated to the floor by several police officers. One year later, the Gambian asylum seeker Bakary J., after a failed deportation, was brought to a warehouse normally used for police training purposes, where three policemen tortured and threatened to kill him while one was standing guard. The Austrian chapter of Amnesty International and former UN Special Rapporteur on Torture Manfred Nowak, criticized the too lenient sentences given to the perpetrators. The policemen received suspended sentences between 6 and 8 months on probation and three of the four were only dismissed from the police force in 2012.
The existing tense atmosphere within the debate of the Austrian aliens legislation has led to several violent incidents. Various cases of deportations of integrated families sparked protests by opposition parties and NGOs.
The Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination in 2008 expressed concern over “reported cases of ill-treatment, arbitrary controls and verbal abuse by the police against noncitizens, notably asylum-seekers, persons of African descent and Roma.”6
Prison conditions were generally adequate with minor overcrowding and understaffing problems in some of the detention facilities.
The CPT in its 2010 report registered hardly any allegations of ill-treatment but received several complaints of disrespectful behaviour by police staff. The CPT criticised major shortcomings concerning health-care services in police detention centres. It also expressed concern regarding the fact that foreign nationals pending deportation are held in the PAZ for long periods, which are designed and staffed as holding facilities for criminal and administrative offenders. In this regard, it was noted that asylum seekers awaiting deportation were held in detention centres for up to ten months without regular ex-officio review of remand – largely in closed cells without any occupation.7 There are continuous cases of hunger strikes in the PAZ by asylum seekers and the Human Rights Advisory Board (now Austrian Ombudsman Board) has repeatedly criticised the medical treatment of persons on a hunger strike.
1US State Department (2011) Human Rights Report, Austria
2http://nhri.ohchr.org/EN/Documents/Chart%20of%20the%20Status%20of%20NIs%20%2830%20May%202012%29.pdf, 30 Jan 2013
3CAT (2009) State Report (CAT/C/AUT/4-5)
4Stellungnahme der Volksanwaltschaft, 24.10.2012, VA-6100/0004-V/1/2012
5Amnesty International Annual Report 2012 (http://www.amnesty.org/en/region/austria/report-2012)
6CERD/C/AUT/CO/17 (2008); see also: UPR (2010) Summary of Stakeholder Information (A/HRC/WG.6/10/AUT/3, para. 29.)
7UPR (2010) Summary of Stakeholder Information (A/HRC/WG.6/10/AUT/3, para. 28.)
Sources: UN Data Country Profile Austria, King’s College London: Prison Brief for Austria, Economist Intelligence Unit, US Department of State Country Profile Austria, AoT News (http://www.univie.ac.at/bimtor/news/926), Amnesty International, Association for the Prevention of Torture – Compilation of Torture Laws
Documents: CAT/C/AUT/CO/4-5 (2010) Concluding Observations, CAT/C/AUT/4-5 (2009) State Report, CAT/C/34/Add.18 (2005) State Report, CPT/Inf (2010) 5 (2010) Mission Report, CAT/OP/12/5 (2010) Guidelines on national preventive mechanisms, CERD/C/AUT/CO/17 (2008) Concluding Observations, A/HRC/WG.6/10/AUT/2 (2010) UPR Compilation, A/HRC/WG.6/10/AUT/1 (2010) UPR State Report, A/HRC/WG.6/10/AUT/3 (2010) UPR Summary