[ 19. Jul 2005 ]

Count Down to the Seibane Trial: The Odds Against Us

Seibane Wague Memorial, Stadtpark Vienna, Summer 2003

And a vision appeared to Paul in the night: a man of Macedonia was standing beseeching him and saying, "Come over to Macedonia and help us." - Acts of the Apostles 16:9.


Four years after Mr. Marcus Omofuma died aboard a Bulgarian aircraft in the custody of three officers of the Austrian police escorting him on apparently uncertified (arguably, then, forced) deportation to Lagos, Nigeria, and a little more than two years since the officers were grudgingly found guilty of manslaughter in a clear case of murder, and handed minimal suspended sentences, the police had no second thoughts about manhandling another African, Mr. Seibane Wague to death. Seibane"s sudden, tragic death on the night of 15 July 2003 brought things to the fore with new insights. The ten people indicted for his death will be prosecuted during 19-21 July 2005 in a Vienna courthouse. Because black people in this country know how heavily against us the odds are, we have no illusions about a just outcome. For the same reasons, we have little difficulty imagining how the narrative will be contested in the courtroom. This is a heavy period for us, a period for serious reflections.

Seibane"s nightmare began at the African Cultural Village (afrika kulturdorf) in Vienna, a make-shift architecture of a cluster of mud-like huts with thatched roofs simulating a homestead in Africa - the type the West favours as typical. The Village was assembled in some spot in the Stadtpark vicinity of the 3rd municipal district of Vienna. The objective of the project, which opened on 28 May 2003 was generally to "bring" Africa to Austria, an opportunity for long distance experience of Africanness. The village bustled with mini markets for handicrafts and souvenirs, coffee and tea shops, warm meal vending booths, and a beer counter that also offered soft drink varieties of tropical African fruits. At a conspicuous corner was a stage where music and other entertainment were routinely performed live.

In the early hours on 6 June 2003 the Village suffered a devastating arson assault by unknown but suspected skinheads. It recovered quickly and bounced back to life. Visitors resumed their usual habit of staying toward mid-night at which time business officially began to wind down for the day. Following the arson assault, Mr. Seibane Wague, a 33-year old Mauritanian who worked at the Village as a tour guide and drumming teacher for kids, among other chores volunteered to work also as a night warden. He was on duty on the night of 15 July when his ordeal began.

On this night, the Moscow-trained nuclear physicist and polyglot who had been living in Vienna since 1996 and married to an Austrian, was caught in the middle of some commotion. The midnight row prompted a co-manager of the Village, an Austrian with many years of hands-on experience in development work in Africa, among Africans, to place an emergency call to the police. When the arrived, they seized Seibane, handcuffed and then frisked him to the ground face downwards so that he lay on his stomach. They shackled his feet, repeatedly beat and abused him with racist slurs: "Filthy creature! still giving no peace, eeh?" (Du Sau du, gibst du noch immer keine Ruhe, Hey?) Because the police believed Seibane was under the influence of narcotics they had the crew of the city ambulance, which had been summoned in the meantime to inject him with a hard tranquilizer, Haldol. By the time Mr. Seibane Wague was brought to the hospital he must have progressed far toward death for he died shortly thereafter.

But the unexpected always happens to the Austrian police probably because in their habitual, excessive excitement about the black body they tend not to pause to reflect. Unbeknownst to them the incident had been recorded, in part, on video by an amateur cameraman and subsequently televised for all to see.

After watching the video, the chief medical officer of the Vienna Ambulance suspended from duty all of the medical team involved in the affair. The police chief, on the other hand, would not go that far insisting on first of all getting all the facts as clear as the light of day before taking any (such) action. Although the claims by the police that Seibane had been aggressive and was screaming and resisting arrest were not corroborated by the video, the then Minister of Interior, Mr. Ernst Strasser, insisted that the police had behaved properly, and had, in fact, done what they were supposed to do. Meanwhile, Seibane"s widow filed charges against the police at the Independent Administrative Court (UVS) which began proceedings in Vienna in December of 2003 to determine whether the police had actually infringed Seibane"s human rights. The UVS "acts as the supervisory body over administrative acts of the executive branch." At the hearing, some eyewitnesses testified that Seibane did not curse or resist the police, was not aggressive but rather "nervous and peculiar". Indeed, what one sees from the video (replayed in the court) is a quietly lying Wague encircled by a bunch of police officers, paramedics and medic. On 29 January 2004 the UVS delivered judgement. It ruled that the handling of Mr. Seibane Wague by the police on the night of 15 July 2003 was unlawful (rechtswidrig). But decisions of the UVS are primarily moral statements; they are not legally binding.

Admittedly, the scenes captured in the video were only part of the whole story so that there"s the possibility that the places where Seibane might have behaved as was alleged by the police had been missed out. Fair enough. But then, if the Kureng and Omofuma affairs of 1997 and 1999 respectively have taught black people in this country any lesson, it is that there is little reason to believe any thing the Austrian police say about any black person until such claims have been rigorously ascertained without any doubt. The Seibane debacle makes this point not so much by what the police accused Seibane of doing, as by what a disinterested camera caught them unawares doing to him, which, because it completely lacked commonsense or moral justification raised serious doubts about the integrity and professional standing of the police officers.

So incredibly disproportionate was the sense of unfairness of this police contingent that some actually climbed and stood, apparently with the approval of the rest, on the limp, helpless, inert and immobilized body of Mr. Seibane Wague (whom they outnumbered many times over!) as though the poor fellow was a dangerous beast become the more dangerous for the capture and they, exuberant safari hunters. They had already repeatedly called him Sau (female pig = filthy creature) which was another way of saying he was sub-human, and they proceeded to give this racist episteme expression by trampling and standing on his "animal" body. Thus, when Minister Strasser, a gentleman no doubt, insisted that his police had handled Mr. Seibane correctly and appropriately one frankly wondered
Did the Honourable Minister mean, for example, that standing on Seibane"s limp body as the video revealed the police doing was proper and legitimate? Suppose the video had not been available, how in the world could we have known of this barbaric irresponsibility or of the equally repulsive spectacle of the ambulance medical doctor standing with both hands in his pockets rather nonchalantly and just looking on and - apparently - enjoying the act of murder unfold?

Let"s not forget that the police, in all likelihood, would never have admitted standing on Wague"s limp body. Let"s also akeep in mind that without the fortuitous benefit of the video we could never have known of this important, disturbing fact. On their own, the police would never have volunteered the fact themselves since it was not in their interest to make it public knowledge. And even if it would have been recalled by an eyewitness, say in a court of law, the police and their defense, from all indications, were certain to deny and dismiss it outright. And given our experience at the Korneuburg court in the trial of the three police officers who manhandled Mr. Marcus Omofuma to death, we know only too well that it is quite possible for a judge to also dismiss such human testimony as, say, "insufficient" or "unsubstantiated", as similarly happened at Korneuburg. There, when an eyewitness testified that a police officer had actually laughed derisively as he taped up Omofuma"s mouth Judge Alexander Fiala - even though Omofuma died from asphyxiation - ruled that the testimony was "not of itself sufficient" to establish intent. I suppose that Judge Fiala would have still held on to his reasoning even if that evidence had been captured by the unbliking eye of a video camera.

If standing on Seibane"s limp and conquered body the way the police did does not establish intent, what does? One question we very much hope the judge or public prosecutor will ask this week is: With what intents did the police (1) climb on, and (2) stand on an inert, handcuffed body already flat on the ground? To make it rise and stand up again? Why would the medical doctor who knows something about the fragile mortality of the human body not restrain the barbarians but instead preferred to stand by and watch their primitive rituals? Was he watching and waiting for the good Lord to somehow drop by and rescue Seibane? Does this physiscian"s unconscionable acquiescence, given his medical training, knowledge, oath, practice, competence and, above all, human commonsense also not constitute intent of a kind, even if only by implication? How does one establish the intent to kill, to murder in such matters? What about the on-looking officers and paramedics who would not restrain their more aggressive colleagues? We dare not forget that it was possible in these parts for as many as sixty million Jews to be brutally murdered not because there were blood-thirsty murderes but because there were by-standers, in silence, watchingâ€ÅÂ

Seibane was accused by the police of shouting. Of course, screaming in the middle of the night and disturbing the general peace - the peace of darkness, the quiet of the stars, the near-coherent rhythm of crickets, the nestling birds atop trees, the sleep of law abiding and hard working denizens in the neighbourhoods - constitutes nuisance. But what if this nuisance was emanating from one in psychological distress as appeared to be the case? Part of the problem if not a great deal of it, I suppose, resides in the demonstrated contempt of the Austrian police for the black African life; otherwise, the police would certainly have dealt with Mr. Seibane Wague much more humanely than they showed capable of. The same goes for Mr. Kureng Akuei in 1997, an accredited diplomat at the Sudanese embassy in Vienna who was bloodied by the police for allegedly refusing to cooperate when confronted with packing his car in a forbidden lot. But when everything came clear under the " light of day", it turned out that this police allegation was a lie: the poor chap, Mr. Kureng Akuei, didn"t own a car and worse still, for the police, he didn"t even have a driver"s license and so didn"t know how to drive! We suppose that the assumption of the police was that since Mr. Akuei was a diplomat in the modern, cosmopolitan city of Vienna he must own a car. Well, nothing establishes the intent to deceive and brutalize better than this piece of prejudice and the dishonesty of the lie it spunned.

We are really not exaggerating when we speak of a demonstrated contempt for the black African life. In August 2004, a 37 year old Nigerian inmate, Mr. Edwin Ndupu, died at the Stein penitentiary in the province of Lower Austria after special force troops of the prison security physically assaulted him on a massive scale, and then had a prison doctor inject him with a tranquilizer. The Nigerian embassy in Vienna first learned about the Nigerian"s death from the papers (instead of from the Austrian government as diplomatic tradition requires) and formally requested the Austrian authorities not to bury his remains because the embassy was interested in an independent autopsy. On 14 September 2004, however, Mr. Ndupu"s remains were buried by the Austrian government in an unmarked grave at the Stein cemetry. (Nigerian lawmakers should petition the President of Nigeria to ascertain the circumstances of Mr. Ndupu"s death and burial in spite of the intervention of the Nigerian embassy in Vienna.) The Honourable Austrian Minster of Justice, Ms. Karin Miklautsch, invited the assaulting troops and their commander to the Ministry and congratulated them with rewards of financial prize and awards of certificate-of-merit for a job well done! What kind of message or signal does such policy-conduct of the Justice Minister and Ministry relay to the justice system in general and, in particular, to the public prosecutor and judges? In a recent press interview (see the Vienna-based news magazine, profil, 27 June 2005, p. 32), Minister. Miklautsch rejected the suggestion that the Justice Ministry, in difficult or embarrassing cases, exerts certain influence on the courts.

It is worth noting that following Ms. Miklautsch"s appointment on 25 June of 2004 only 22 percent of Austrians, according to a poll, thought she was sufficiently qualified for the job. The charismatic extreme right fanatic, Joerg Haider, rose to prominence in contemporary Austrian politics on the promise of black and foreigner bashing, among others. Why wouldn"t Ms. Miklautsch who was reportedly nominated for the job by Joerg Haider and his extremist Freedom Party of Austria (she refuses to say whether or not she is a Freedom Party member or voter), seek to justify her competence and improve her public rating by the same means? The answer to this question may hold a key to the nature of the odds against us in the coming Seibani trial.

One of the explanations for using force on Mr. Edwin Ndupu who, while in prison, had been an outpatient of the Mauer-Oehling psychiatric hospital, was his alleged failure to cooperate, and the need, therefore, to subdue him and his wild screams. Even so, in what ways might Mr. Seibane Wague have refused to cooperate with the police? In what conceivable ways could he have made it harder for them to carry out their police duties? Because he was screaming? How in the world could the screams or screaming of one small, unarmed, helpless and certainly frightened blackman pose a threat to a contingent of heavily armed white police officers that outnumbered him many many many times over - and threat enough for them to be so cruel to him? In what sense could Mr. Seibane Wague be said to have been remotely responsible for his tragic death at the hands of the police-and-ambulance team? This is not a flippant question because there"s a precedent. In April of 2002, Judge Alexander Fiala of the Korneuburg court actually ruled that, for refusing to cooperate with the police, Mr. Marcus Omofuma was partly responsible for his death! Austrian government statistics indicate that 983 out of a total of 988 complaints brought against the police in the year 2003 for impropriety in the handling of suspects were dropped! The trial this week of the accused ten may actually turn out to be the trial of Seibane Wague for his role in his own murder.

The odds are against us and they are many. But as we brace for the three-day hearing, we nevertheless do so in the hope (some have told me deluded hope) that justice will be delivered and served (for once!). We brace for the legal contest of the Seibane narrative knowing very well that for black people in this God"s own country the justice system appears to have an abundance of hatred and despising
We need help badly over here in Vienna this week. We will need all the help we can get, preferably some divine intervention.

Chibo Onyeji