Austria - Lawsuit, Restrictive Policies, Smear campaigns

Austrian Activist Facing Lawsuit

Published on Wed Jan 19 2022 - modified on Tue Apr 12 2022

A member of BDS Austria is being sued by the Municipality of Vienna for sharing a Facebook post stating: ”Visit Apartheid – Free Palestine”. The Municipality has filed a strategic lawsuit against public participation (SLAPP) to deliberately repress and intimidate BDS-Austria and Palestinian rights advocates. Such a tactic threatens democratic values and fundamental rights. The hearing at the Commercial Court of Vienna will take place on the 28th of January 2022.

TAKE ACTION NOW to push the Municipality of Vienna to withdraw its complaint!

Facts of the case

On the 29th of August 2021, BDS-Austria published a social media post with a picture of the famous poster stating “Visit Apartheid” that was stuck on a billboard along with the official logo of the Municipality of Vienna. The post had the sarcastic caption “We are pleased that the City of Vienna also takes note of apartheid and publicly states it”.

BDS-Austria is part of the international solidarity movement that aims to achieve justice for Palestinians under the framework of international law through means of boycotts, sanctions and divestment. BDS Austria’s work sheds light on apartheid in Palestine and also aims at pushing the Austrian authorities to take a just stance for Palestinian rights in line with their international human rights and legal obligations.

Yet, in November 2021, a member of BDS-Austria was notified that the Municipality of Vienna officially filed a lawsuit against him. According to the municipality, the BDS movement “incites to hatred against Israeli people” and therefore being publicly associated with BDS would amount to defamation since “the designation of the situation in Israel/Palestine as an “Apartheid” constitutes damage to our reputation”.

In January 2022, lawyer Elisabetta Folliero along with the ELSC, submitted a rebuttal against the SLAPP. The file included an expert opinion instructed by the ELSC and signed by renowned scholars, on the incompatibility of the anti-BDS resolution adopted by the Austrian authorities, with international and European human rights standards, including the right to freedom of expression. The hearing took place on Friday 28 January in the Vienna Commercial Court.

On 6 April 2022, in a highly contestable decision, the judge ruled in favour of the City of Vienna and ordered that the BDS activist must no longer use the logo of the City of Vienna in connection with any publication or public statement. The judge also approved the City’s request of damages (€3.500) and of legal fees to be paid by the BDS activist.

Repression on Palestinian rights advocates

This case sheds light on the underlying hostile context for Palestinian rights advocates in Austria, who are deliberately targeted as part of a systematic campaign to shield the Israeli apartheid from legitimate criticism and exposure. This campaign is pursued partly through the political instrumentalisation of antisemitism.

In 2017, Austria adopted the controversial IHRA Working Definition of Antisemitism, which conflates antisemitism with criticism of the Israeli apartheid regime through its controversial examples. In 2018, the Vienna City Council adopted an anti-BDS resolution, labelling the BDS movement as inherently anti-Semitic, depriving it from institutional support and threatening the preservation of a safe political space for Palestinian rights advocacy in Austria.

Instead of supporting advocates for their global call to achieve human rights for all, the Municipality of Vienna entrenches and employs the unfair and politically driven anti-BDS motion to further repress the BDS movement and other advocates for Palestinian rights, violating their fundamental freedoms. This trend of repression leads to intimidating and erasing Palestinian rights voices from the public debate.

A direct threat on freedom of expression and association

Austria has clear obligations to protect the right to freedom of expression and the right to assembly and association under Articles 10 and 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights, respectively. The right for BDS activists to advocate for Palestinian human rights – including calling to end apartheid – has to be defended. The crime of apartheid by the State of Israel has been documented and condemned by a number of human rights organisations including Human Rights Watch and B’tselem

On 11 June 2020, the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) also ruled that calling for a boycott of goods from Israel is protected under the right to freedom of expression and cannot be considered as incitement to discrimination.

The legal opinion instructed by the ELSC and signed by renowned academics in international law, Eric David, Xavier Dupré De Boulois, Richard Falk and John Reynolds, exposes the failure of the Austrian authorities to comply with international and European human rights standards by enacting their anti-BDS motions.

The use of SLAPP to silence BDS advocates

This case also represents the pattern of repression through the use of Strategic Lawsuits against Public Participation as reflected by the civil and criminal complaints initiated by the Municipality of Vienna against the member of BDS-Austria for simply attempting to push the Austrian government to denounce the crime of apartheid. The use of SLAPPs is directly threatening the fundamental right to freedom of expression and often leads to psychological and financial intimidation against human rights advocates. SLAPPs are also instrumentalised to further contribute to the chilling effect of the crucial participation of Palestinian rights voices in public to expose state obligations against apartheid.

What can you do to support the case?

Timeline

6 April 2022: The Commercial Court issued a highly contestable decision endorsing the  City’s claims.

28 January 2022: Hearing at the Commercial Court of Vienna.

January 2022: Lawyer Elisabetta Folliero along with the ELSC, submitted a rebuttal against the Municipality of Vienna.

November 2021:  A member of BDS-Austria was notified that the Municipality of Vienna officially filed a lawsuit against him.

29 August 2021: BDS Austria published a Facebook post with a picture of a poster that was stuck on a billboard along with the official logo of the Municipality of Vienna with the sarcastic caption “We are pleased that the City of Vienna also takes note of apartheid and publicly states it”.

 

Media Coverage

• Adri Nieuwhof, Munich anti-BDS policy is illegal, German federal court rules, The Electronic Intifada, 24 January 2022

• Wolfgang Benedek, SLAPP-Klagen: Die Meinungsfreiheit ist bedroht, Kleine Zeitung, 18 February 2022

• Protect the Protest, BDS Austria: SLAPPed for calling out Israeli apartheid, 28 March 2022


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