An Austrian appellate court has upheld the conviction of Elisabeth Sabaditsch-Wolff, a Viennese housewife and anti-Jihad activist, for "denigrating religious beliefs" after giving a series of seminars about the dangers of radical Islam.
The December 20 ruling shows that while Judaism and Christianity can be disparaged with impunity in postmodern multicultural Austria, speaking the truth about Islam is subject to swift and hefty legal penalties.
Although the case has major implications for freedom of speech in Austria, as well as in Europe as a whole, it has received virtually no press coverage in the American mainstream media.
Sabaditsch-Wolff's Kafkaesque legal problems began in November 2009, when she presented a three-part seminar about Islam to the Freedom Education Institute, a political academy linked to the Austrian Freedom Party.
A glossy socialist weekly magazine, NEWS -- all in capital letters -- planted a journalist in the audience to secretly record the first two lectures. Lawyers for the leftwing publication then handed the transcripts over to the Viennese public prosecutor's office as evidence of hate speech against Islam, according to Section 283 of the Austrian Criminal Code (Strafgesetzbuch, StGB). Formal charges against Sabaditsch-Wolff were filed in September 2010; and her bench trial, presided on by one multicultural judge and no jury, began November 23, 2010.
On the first day of the trial, however, it quickly became clear that the case against Sabaditsch-Wolff was not as air-tight as prosecutors had made it out to be. The judge in the case, Bettina Neubauer, pointed out, for example, that only 30 minutes of the first seminar had actually been recorded.
Neubauer also noted that some of the statements attributed to Sabaditsch-Wolff were offhand comments made during breaks and not a formal part of the seminar. Moreover, only a few people heard these comments, not 30 or more -- the criterion under Austrian law for a statement being "public." In any event, Sabaditsch-Wolff says her comments were not made in a public forum because the seminars were held for a select group of people who had registered beforehand.
More importantly, many of the statements attributed to Sabaditsch-Wolff were actually quotes she made directly from the Koran and other Islamic religious texts. Fearing that the show trial would end in a mistrial, the judge abruptly suspended hearings until January 18, 2011, ostensibly to give him time to review the tape recordings, but also to give the prosecution more time to shore up its case.
On January 18, after realizing that the original charge would not hold up, the judge -- not the prosecutor -- informed Sabaditsch-Wolff that in addition to the initial charge of hate speech, she was now being charged with "denigrating religious symbols of a recognized religious group." Sabaditsch-Wolff's lawyer immediately demanded that the trial be postponed so that the defense could prepare a new strategy.
When the trial resumed on February 15, 2011, Sabaditsch-Wolff was exonerated of the first charge of "incitement" because the court found that here statements were not made in a "provocative" manner.
But Sabaditsch-Wolff was convicted of the second charge against her, namely "denigration of religious beliefs of a legally recognized religion," according to Section 188 of the Austrian Criminal Code.
The judge ruled that Sabaditsch-Wolff committed a crime by stating in her seminars about Islam that the Islamic prophet Mohammed was a pedophile (Sabaditsch-Wolff's actual words were "Mohammed had a thing for little girls.")
The judge rationalized that Mohammed's sexual contact with nine-year-old Aisha could not be considered pedophilia because Mohammed continued his marriage to Aisha until his death. According to this line of thinking, Mohammed had no exclusive desire for underage girls; he was also attracted to older females because Aisha was 18 years old when Mohammed died.
The judge ordered Sabaditsch-Wolff to pay a fine of €480 ($625) or an alternative sentence of 60 days in prison. Moreover, she was required to pay the costs of the trial. Although at first glance the fine may appear trivial -- the fine was reduced to 120 "day rates" of €4 each because Sabaditsch-Wolff is a housewife with no income -- the actual fine would have been far higher if she had had income.
Sabaditsch-Wolff appealed the conviction to the Provincial Appellate Court (Oberlandesgericht Wien) in Vienna, but that appeal was rejected on December 20. The court says she will go to prison if the fine is not paid within the next six months. She says she will take the case to the Strasbourg-based European Court for Human Rights.
After the trial, Sabaditsch-Wolff said her conviction represented "a black day for Austria." The Vienna Federation of Academics (Wiener Akademikerbund) said the ruling represented "politically and sentimentally motivated justice" and marked "the end of freedom of expression in Austria."
Sabaditsch-Wolff is not the only Austrian to run afoul of the country's anti-free speech laws. In January 2009, Susanne Winter, an Austrian politician and Member of Parliament, was convicted for the "crime" of saying that "in today's system" the Mohammed would be considered a "child molester," referring to his marriage to Aisha. Winter was also convicted of "incitement" for saying that Austria faces an "Islamic immigration tsunami." Winters was ordered to pay a fine of €24,000 ($31,000), and received a suspended three-month prison sentence.
Soeren Kern is Senior Fellow for Transatlantic Relations at the Madrid-based Grupo de Estudios Estratégicos / Strategic Studies Group. Follow him on Facebook.