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Austrian asylum advocate faces prison time over op-ed

Refugees sit in a mattress camp in Votivkirche church in Vienna, 23 January 2013.
Refugees sit in a mattress camp in Votivkirche church in Vienna, 23 January 2013.

REUTERS/Heinz-Peter Bader

An Austrian man who argued in an op-ed that some human smugglers perform a public service could spend up to two years in prison in a case that has chilling implications for free expression, the International Press Institute (IPI) said today.

Michael Genner, the chairman of Asyl in Not (Asylum in Need), a Vienna-based group that advocates for the right of political asylum, is scheduled to face trial tomorrow morning on a charge of "endorsing a punishable offence".

The charge stems from an article appearing in the Aug. 21, 2013 edition of the weekly Viennese newspaper Augustin and on Asyl in Not's website in which Genner expressed support for the work of human smugglers who help refugees fleeing countries torn by war, terrorism or religious fundamentalism to enter Europe safely.

Contrasting those efforts with the actions of human traffickers - who he said often have no concern for emigrants' safety, and subject them to life-threatening dangers or sell them into slavery - Genner argued that some smugglers performed a "socially useful activity" for which they were entitled to reasonable compensation.

Following an anonymous complaint, prosecutors in Vienna charged Genner with violating Sec. 282(2) of Austria's criminal code, which criminalises the endorsement of certain criminal acts via a printed publication or broadcast, or by any other means that might render it available to the general public. The provision bars endorsing an intentionally committed criminal offence that is punishable by imprisonment of more than one year if the endorsement is made in a manner that is conducive to offending general perceptions of justice or in a manner that might incite someone to commit such an offence.

Prosecutors apparently believe Genner's comments were out of sync with Austrian law prohibiting human smuggling for illicit gain.

Genner's supporters, however, say the case is likely to chill free expression. Some also maintain that his comments amount to an argument that smugglers who charge a reasonable fee and who act in an ethical manner have not earned money illicitly and, as a result, have not actually broken the law. If that is correct, then Genner's endorsement also would not be a crime.

Austrian journalist Irene Brickner, a commentator who covers human rights and asylum-related issues for Der Standard, and who has written in support of Genner, said: "I definitely think that the case against Michael Genner has the potential to restrict the freedom of expression concerning asylum matters in Austria. It must be legal to discuss freely the fact that European asylum-politics force refugees to entrust people smugglers - which are sometimes, but not always, criminals."

IPI Press Freedom Manager Barbara Trionfi said that IPI was "very concerned by Austrian prosecutors' use of this law to punish the expression of an unwelcome viewpoint" and she called for the charge to be dropped.

"We take no position on Mr. Genner's specific arguments," Trionfi explained. "But if an opinion piece criticising government policy on human trafficking or on 'smugglers' - or advancing an argument that certain acts may not be illegal under existing law - is criminalised, journalistic reports on this subject could potentially be criminalised as well.

"A conviction would have the practical effect of shutting down one side of the debate on a controversial issue that is of public interest. Even worse, it could be used to shut down debate on future issues, including those raising the spectre of acts of civil disobedience. Such an outcome would establish a dangerous precedent for freedom of expression that would certainly constitute a threat to press freedom as well."

At this point, would publish: "Home page"

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