Austria - Press Release

First step towards justice for Palestinian rights activist in Vienna sued over social media post

Published on Wed Nov 09 2022 - modified on Thu Nov 10 2022

European Legal Support Center (ELSC), Amsterdam and Vienna, November 9, 2022

The Viennese administrative authority has discontinued proceedings brought against the BDS Austria activist, including a fine of up to 3.500€, which accused the activist of committing an administrative offence. The activist and their lawyer are hopeful that this verdict will compel the civil court to dismiss the pending SLAPP and lead to a full vindication of the activist’s rights.  

On 20 October 2022, in a positive turn of events, the administrative authority dismissed the proceedings brought against a BDS activist for posting a third-party photo of the famous “Visit apartheid” poster parodically emblazoned with the City of Vienna logo. The charges were initially brought on the grounds of the improper use of the City’s logo, a violation of the Administrative Offences Act which warranted a fine of up to €3.500.

The administrative authority based its sudden halt of the proceedings on section 45(1) of the Administrative Offences Act 1991 (VStG), which allows for a dismissal of proceedings where, among other things: the defendant is innocent, the offence is not reprehensible or the harm raised by the claim is not severe enough to justify the proceedings. Although the administrative authority was unable to specify any one of the reasons listed in section 45(1), the fact that it relied on this provision in the first place clearly shows that it understood the claim to be baseless.

In the meantime, the City of Vienna’s SLAPP against the activist for defamation is still ongoing.

Back in April 2022, a judge contestably upheld the SLAPP lodged by the City against the activist over the same post. In the submission, the City of Vienna complained that the sarcastic “Visit apartheid” statement associated with the City’s logo would amount to defamation and that the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement “incites to hatred against Israeli people”. The activist has appealed this decision.

In a letter sent in May 2022 to the Austrian authorities, four UN Special Rapporteurs had also expressed concerns about the City of Vienna’s anti-BDS resolution and the lawsuit that “may hinder the peaceful activities of human rights defenders committed to monitor and denounce human rights violations in occupied Palestine, shrinking the civic space available to them to express legitimate grievances”.

The latest victory may mark a turning point in this judicial saga. 

The activist’s lawyer, Elisabetta Folliero, welcomes the decision dated 20 October 2022:

It is very positive that the administration of the City of Vienna has reaffirmed the importance of the exercise of freedom of opinion, thus demonstrating that Viennese institutions still have willpower to tackle violations of fundamental human rights. We hope that the civil proceedings still pending will also have the same outcome. It is vital to reiterate that freedom of opinion, and freedom of boycott as its component, are essential in order to safeguard democracy.

The judgment on the appeal against the interim decision has not yet been issued, and a hearing for the civil lawsuit is yet to be set.

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