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New laws threaten to shift the balance of power between citizens and the state

 
Protestors are being prosecuted using new, stricter laws designed to protect public servants from violence. But the latest increase in police power won't necessarily protect the police from demonstrators, and may instead be merely a means for politicians to signal that they are "tough on crime"

A decade after the Youth House was torn down in Nørrebro, the conflict between its former anarchist residents and the police still festers. The riots that followed its demolition in 2007 brought Nørrebro to its knees, resulted in the arrests of 714 people, and cost 40 million kroner in police overtime. This March, at a demonstration marking the ten-year anniversary of the demolition, businesses were vandalised and anarchist sympathisers threw projectiles at the police.

In prosecuting this behaviour, the authorities have a new tool at their disposal, The Respect Act (Respektpakken), a set of laws designed to protect the police and other public servants from assault. The laws were passed by Parliament last year following a decade that saw a steady rise in violence and threats against public servants – from 47 cases in 2007 to 98 in 2016.

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“We are increasing the penalties in a number of areas in order to regain respect for the people who work for our community,” Justice Minister Søren Pape Poulsen said after the laws were passed.

The Social Democrats (Socialdemokratiet) were the only left-wing party to support the laws.

“Respect for the people who look after us all needs to be restored,” the party’s legal affairs spokesperson, Trine Bramsen, told DR.

“The people most likely to commit these offences need to be held on a short leash and made to understand the serious consequences that will ensue if they’re violent or threatening to police officers.”

More powers to the police
The laws were put to use following the March demonstration. The first of seven cases to be seen at Copenhagen City Court resulted in a nine-month sentence for one 23-year-old man for throwing two stones that hit a police vehicle during the demonstration. In August, the judge concluded that his actions incited attacks by others that contributed to further unrest.

READ MORE: A complacent government and overzealous police threaten the right to protest

“I can gladly report that the Respektpakke that we enacted just before the New Year is starting to prove its worth,” declared Poulsen at the Conservative People’s Party (Konservative) conference in September.

Respektpakken also criminalises behaviour that takes place in digital forums, lengthens sentences for violence towards public servants, and makes organisers of public unrest culpable for criminal behaviour and liable for damages in the event of vandalism.

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These are the latest in a series of laws to empower the long arm of the law. The 2004 Police Act (Politiloven) allowed police to preventatively detain individuals “who are at risk of committing public disruption, and who present a threat to individuals and public safety” for up to six hours. In 2005, 1,001 administrative detentions took place. The number of administrative detentions has only increased over the years, swelling to 4,296 in 2015, of which 2,224 were for the purpose of maintaining order and security.

In 2009, in the lead up to the COP15 UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, police powers were further strengthened with the Deviants Act (Lømmelpakken), which allowed police to preventatively detain individuals for up to 12 hours, even if no crime was committed. They detained over 1,900 demonstrators during the conference, including a mass arrest of 905 demonstrators on Amager. Over 200 ultimately joined a lawsuit against the police, in which they successfully argued that the mass preventative detentions were illegal under human rights law.

The ruling by the Eastern High Court didn’t immediately change police practices, however. Counter-protestors at far-right rallies, football fans, and pro-Tibet demonstrators have all been illegally held in administrative detentions that resulted in compensation payments between 2009 and 2012.

Impact on civil liberties
Given that the courts often rule that these administrative detentions are illegal, legal affairs think tank Justitia argues that the Danish police are pushing their powers to the absolute limits, and in the process are undermining fundamental individual rights.

“The information provided by the National Police clearly shows that the police increasingly prioritise the need to maintain peace and order at the expense of citizens’ freedoms, including freedom of assembly,” says Jacob Mchangama, director of Justitia.

READ MORE: Victims of hate crimes find cold comfort with the police

“Freedom of expression and assembly is one of democracy’s cornerstones and is therefore protected under both the constitution and the European Convention on Human Rights. This is a matter of legal certainty and a sign that the police in many cases do not sufficiently consider the respect of citizens’ fundamental rights.”

The Danish Institute for Human Rights also argues that the police are violating human rights. In a 2013 report, the organisation called for a revision of the Politiloven’s rules on preventive detention in order to limit its scope and duration. In their 2016 report on human rights in Denmark, the Institute again recommended that the Justice Ministry ensure that police do not violate European human rights laws with preventative detentions.

Status quo
When Liberal Party MP Søren Pind introduced Respektpakken in 2016, during his time as justice minister, he stated, “A condition that Denmark remains a safe and well-functioning country is that we have respect for each other, for public spaces, and for the institutions and people who represent our common interests.”

It should instead be called the Fear Act, argues Nick Allencroft, editor and founder of DenOffentlige.dk, a news media outlet focused on the public sector. For example, a 58-year-old woman was slapped with a 7500 kroner fine under Respektpakken this August for insulting a public official over Facebook, calling them a liar, among other things.

Allencroft argues that the legislation lacks measures to reinforce the state’s respect for its citizens, citing scandals such as those involving the tax ministry and public transit that have resulted in billions of kroner in lost tax revenue.

Respektpakken increases the power of the state by giving it the legal means to intimidate, threaten and control its citizens,” he says.

Political signalling
Lawyer Marc Jørgensen represented a number of the demonstrators who were illegally detained during COP15 and later granted compensation. He is pleased that in recent years the police have changed tactics, resulting in fewer illegal mass arrests.

He is more concerned by the steadily-increasing powers being granted to the police through laws such as Respektpakken, which is disrupting the balance of power between citizens and the authorities. Jørgensen represented the 23-year-old man who was first sentenced in August. The verdict was appealed but on November 29, the Eastern High Court upheld the nine-month sentence.

“It’s hard to say what sentence he would have received before Respektpakken, but in my view it shouldn’t have been longer than six months,” says Jørgensen.

While there need to be sanctions to protect the police and other public servants from assault, the new laws offer them little additional protection.

“The laws are designed by politicians to show that they are tough on crime. So they will continue to propose new laws and harsher sentences in the future. It’s only going in one direction. No politician will ever call for shorter sentences – that would be political suicide. We could easily end up in a situation next year with a new riot, followed by politicians calling for tougher punishments. But they don’t prevent riots – I have seen no evidence of that. Riots occur for different reasons, and even in countries with harsh punishments there are riots. It is political signalling without any effect beyond punishing young people really hard.” M

The changes in Respektpakken include:

  • Harsher sentences for offences against public officials and disturbing the peace
  • The criminal code’s special rule for violence and threats against public officials is extended to include indirect threats
  • Introduction of a new harassment rule in the criminal code for the protection of public officials
  • Harsher sentences for offences against off-duty public officials
  • Harsher sentences for all forms of crime targeting individuals or members of their immediate family carrying out public service
  • Harsher sentences for verbal abuse of public officials
  • Organisers of demonstrations have economic liability in the event of vandalism. Source: Danish Ministry of Justice

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By Bradley Axmith

Translator, day trader, web designer, amateur viking ship builder and martial artist.

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