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Migrants must be protected from police violence, rights groups say

Immigration code shouldn't deter reporting police abuse

Proposed amendment allowing deportation of migrants who make 'false' accusations of violence against state officials will offer 'shield of protection for all perjuring government officials who are involved in incidents of racist violence'

(File photo: Reuters) (File photo: Reuters) The government should immediately drop plans that would deter migrant victims from reporting abuse at the hands of police and other state agents, Europe's most senior human rights official has said, echoing calls from dozens of international and national human rights organisations. 

Nils Muižnieks, human rights commissioner at the Council of Europe, was commenting on New Democracy proposals to alter the immigration code to allow the arrest, prosecution, and deportation of migrants who accuse government employees of using violence against them if a prosecutor deems the accusations to have been false or if there is insufficient evidence to press charges.

Muižnieks said he was “seriously concerned” about the “ill-advised” amendment to article 19 of the immigration code.

“In effect, it shifts the burden of proof onto the migrant complainants and introduces one more ground for deporting migrants who may have been subjected to unlawful violence but have been unable to substantiate their claims,” he said in a statement issued on Wednesday.

He added that the amendment would “foster impunity, since, most likely, migrants will avoid reporting instances of ill-treatment and law enforcement officers would feel shielded for this kind of serious misconduct”.

The provision was unnecessary because any false criminal complaint can already be sanctioned under the existing legislation, he continued.

“I therefore call on the Greek parliament to reject this amendment, and adopt instead an immigration code which will strengthen, instead of weakening, the human rights of migrant victims of racist or other unlawful violence.”

“I also reiterate my call to the Greek government to establish an independent and efficient complaint mechanism covering the activities of all law enforcement authorities in order to eliminate impunity for serious human rights violations and strengthen the rule of law.”

Muižnieks raised his concerns after international NGO Human Rights Watch and a coalition of Greek rights groups involved in monitoring racist violence raised their objections.

The proposals to amend article 19 would offer a “shield of protection for all perjuring government officials who are involved in incidents of racist violence and shall virtually set aside any possibility of protection for the victims”, a statement from the 35 organisations involved in the Athens-based Racist Violence Recording Network said.

Echoing that position in a statement issued in London, Human Rights Watch said that the government should also reintroduce measures to protect undocumented victims and witnesses of crimes, including racist violence. Parliament is debating these issues as it examines a draft immigration code.

“The government’s last-minute proposals targeting migrants who report law enforcement abuse go in exactly the wrong direction,” said Eva Cossé, Greece specialist at Human Rights Watch. “Instead of encouraging victims to come forward, the changes would have a chilling effect and increase existing obstacles for justice.”

On 19 March, New Democracy’s interior minister, Giannis Michelakis, introduced the amendment to the draft immigration code. The controversial amendment was removed twice from the bill last week amid criticism from opposition parties and the government coalition partner, Pasok, one of whose MPs, Leonidas Grigorakos, is alternate interior minister.

But New Democracy has indicated it will submit a new version of the amendment this week.

The provision would violate the principle of nondiscrimination by limiting access to justice for migrant victims of law enforcement abuse, Human Rights Watch said. It would also reverse the presumption of innocence at the expense of victims and witnesses of law enforcement abuse, by creating a statutory presumption of the guilt of the person filing the complaint if the prosecutor decides to not press charges against a law enforcement officer.

At the same time, the government removed a provision from the bill that would have given prosecutors the authority to grant humanitarian visas to undocumented victims and witnesses of felonies and other serious crimes, including hate crimes. Human Rights Watch has heard repeatedly from victims of racist violence in Greece that the threat by police of possible detention and deportation deterred them from reporting a racist attack or pursuing the case.

The government should immediately reintroduce the humanitarian clause, Human Rights Watch said. In addition, law enforcement officials should be required to suspend any immigration law actions arising from the undocumented status of a victim or witness of an alleged attack, pending a prima facie assessment by a prosecutor of the merits of the complaint about the attack. These provisions would be consistent with the EU directive on the rights, support, and protection of victims of crime.

“It’s in everyone’s interest in Greece to hold anyone responsible for a violent crime accountable – and that should include law enforcement officers,” Cossé said. “The government should encourage reporting, not threaten victims with arrest, detention, and deportation.”

The Racist Violence Recording Network said it has repeatedly stressed that racist violence cannot be dealt with effectively without guarantees for the possibility of an allegation.
According to data gathered by the network, “persons lacking legal documents constitute the majority of victims of racist attacks. Even in these rare cases where they have the courage to report the incidents, they are automatically detained until an expulsion decision is issued. It seems, however, that this method of dissuading the victims was not enough.”

It said that the proposed amendment will led to “further intimidation of the victims”.
“It reverses the burden of proof, threatening with immediate court under the flagrant crime procedure and expulsion and essentially criminalising the recourse to legal protection, thus converting the injured victim’s body to a quasi-presumption of guilt. The victims of racist violence are now accountable for any lack of evidence, despite the fact that this lack is most often a result of the delay or even of the reluctance of the prosecuting authorities to adequately investigate the alleged incidents against them.”

The network pointed out that its data shows a “significant increase in incidents where police violence intersects with racist violence”.

“At a time when one would expect the establishment of an effective mechanism to investigate allegations regarding police violence and arbitrary behaviour (in accordance, moreover, with the recommendations of international organizations, the Ombudsman and the National Commission for Human Rights), the [proposed] amendment sends out the message that impunity shall be perpetuated.”

It said that if the amendment is passed, “our country will officially declare that any perjuring government officials may feel safe to act arbitrarily, while strengthening the impunity of all sorts of organised groups of racist violence.”

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