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George Floyd: Deaths in police custody in Europe are back in the spotlight

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Protesters argue with police officers in Madrid's district of Lavapies on March 16, 2018 during a rally in memory of Senegalese street vendor Mame Mbaye
Protesters argue with police officers in Madrid's district of Lavapies on March 16, 2018 during a rally in memory of Senegalese street vendor Mame Mbaye   -   Copyright  AFP
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The reverberations from George Floyd's death in Minneapolis are being felt well beyond the borders of the US. As protests continue to sweep cities across the world, in Europe, the spotlight is beginning to be shone on institutional racism and police brutality.

As in the Floyd case, excessive force used by police is often targeted towards society's most vulnerable: those of an ethnic minority or with a disability.

"Their lives are considered less important," Italian lawyer Fabio Anselmo told Euronews. "That's another form of racism, if we intend racism as a lower consideration for those arrested due to their background. Talking only about racism against black Americans is, to us, an easy way to avoid taking responsibility when such things happen."

Anselmo is the lawyer for the Cucchi, Aldrovandi and Magherini families. Their stories are well-known in Italy: three young people who died in prison while the State was taking care of them.

And there are other similar stories in Italy which are much less well known but no less tragic. Other countries in Europe are by no means immune to this problem, either.

If we look at the list of the episodes that have caused the biggest protests of the past twenty years in many European countries, we notice that belonging to a poorer social background - involving poverty and marginalisation, and, in some cases, disability - is a common factor.

Although the debate on race and white privilege has begun, the continent still has a long way to go in tackling these issues on mainstream debate platforms.

Italy: Sapia, Ferrulli and Rasman cases are evidence of racial profiling

Italy has perhaps seen more than its fair share of cases of racial profiling and deaths of detainees in police custody, similar in character to that of George Floyd in Minnesota.

29-year-old Vincenzo Sapia, who suffered from a psychiatric disorder, died in 2014 after being pinned to the ground during an arrest in Italy's southern region of Calabria.

In scenes echoing Floyd's arrest, the police officers placed their knees and feet on his back.

Prosecutors first investigated whether Sapia had died from a possible heart attack, but it was found that didn't suffer from any cardiac problems.

In the wake of Sapia's death and in light of his mental health, the judge in the preliminary inquiry decided to investigate more into the operative procedures regarding the arrest of people affected by psychiatric conditions.

The trial of the officers involved is still ongoing, leaving the family still seeking justice six years on.

Michele Ferrulli's story bears similarities to Sapia's. The 51-year-old labourer died in Milan in 2011 after suffering a heart attack while handcuffed on the ground. The four police officers involved were charged but were later acquitted.

Ferrulli's family believes he died after being beaten in custody.

The potent mixture of police violence, social exclusion and psychiatric illness has proven fatal in several notable cases in Italy, including that of street cleaner, Riccardo Rasman.

Rasman, who had a history of poor mental health, died of asphyxiation in Trieste, northern Italy, in 2006 after police raided his house. Three police officers were eventually found guilty of "excessive self-defence" in 2011.

He was found handcuffed, hands behind his back, iron wire on his ankles, several wounds and marks from "gagging with total or partial blockage of the mouth, carried out with a lanyard or something similar," according to pathologists.

The Corte di Cassazione (Italy's highest civil court) rejected the appeal of family members asking for higher compensation than the €1.2 million that the first two trials set.

France: Father-of-five takeaway rider killed during an inspection

Of course, Italy is not alone in dealing with such cases. In France, George Floyd's death ignited anger over the death of Adama Traorè, a 24-year-old black man who died at a police station after being chased and arrested in 2016. Thousands took to the streets of towns and cities across France - where youngsters of Arab and African ethnic background are twenty times more likely to be stopped and searched than white youths - to demand answers.

The case was stymied by conflicting medical evidence. The latest report from the investigation into his death came out four days after the Minneapolis incident, which found Traorè may not have died of asphyxiation but from cardiac edema.

His family commissioned an independent autopsy that offered conflicting findings, confirming asphyxiation.

Takeaway rider Cédric Chouviat met a similar fate, after he was tackled and held down by three police officers until he lost consciousness.

He was stopped because officers saw him holding a phone while riding his scooter, which had an unreadable license plate.

Chouviat was rushed to hospital where he passed away 48 hours later on January 5, 2020.

According to his autopsy, he died of asphyxiation and had his larynx fractured. He had been immobilised using the same technique used by the Minneapolis police on George Floyd.

The four officers involved were charged and are still awaiting a court hearing.

Other recent deaths in France include Lamine Dieng, who died in 2007 after being arrested and put into a police van in Belleville. Lorry driver Wissam El-Yamni died at a police station in Clermont-Ferrand after having lost consciousness during his arrest for hurling stones at a police vehicle in 2012.

Spain: Hawker died from a heart attack after running away from officers

"The United States has got a long history of police abuse and racism," said Jennifer Molina, spokesperson for the African community in Catalonia, where thousands took to the street last weekend.

"Racism in Spain is even greater because it is there but there's not a great deal of talk about it."

One of the victims of police brutality that local activists paid homage to was Senegalese hawker Mame Mbaye.

He died in 2018 after running away during a sting operation. He was the victim of "institutional racism," according to his friends, compatriots and colleagues, who occupied Madrid's Plaza Lavapiés for days after his death.

Despite the allegations, his coroner's report found that his cardiocirculatory arrest was not related to the police operation, as there was no proof of wrongdoing on the part of the police officers involved.

Following George Floyd's death, Mbaye's name has resounded at recent protests across Spain.

OSCAR DEL POZO / AFP
Protesters gather at Nelson Mandela square in Madrid's district of Lavapies on March 16, 2018 during a rally in memory of Senegalese street vendor Mame MbayeOSCAR DEL POZO / AFP

Belgium: Protests in Anderlecht over 19-year-old's death

Across the border in Belgium, the recent death of a teenager sparked furious protests among local residents in Brussels against police brutality.

Adil, who was of Moroccan origin, died on April 10 during a police chase in Anderlecht, one of the capital's poorest and most troubled neighbourhoods.

According to local media, his motorbike crashed into a police car coming the opposite direction as he was trying to overtake a van.

It is alleged it was actually the police car that entered the oncoming carriageway. There were no signs of hard braking on the ground, which may help prove it was the police that actually crashed into Adil instead. The investigation is still ongoing.

Lamine Bangoura's case, too, bears the hallmarks of Floyd's arrest and death.

He died aged 27 while being evicted from his rented home in the western Flanders town of Roeselare in 2018.

The former Club Brugge footballer, who hadn't paid his taxes for months, died of asphyxiation, according to his family's lawyer, after police overpowered and handcuffed him.

Eight police officers now could face murder charges.

Germany: No one held responsible for death in a prison cell

Aristeidis L., a Greek citizen, died in prison in Germany on January 12, 2019, after being arrested over a brawl in a bakery. Similarly to Vincenzo Sapia in Italy, he had a history of poor mental health.

After having his hands and feet cuffed, he was pinned to the ground in a lift in a downward-facing position until he suffocated. According to local media, the police officers involved did not face investigation.

The Aristeidis case has also linked to that of Oury Jalloh, an asylum-seeker from Sierra Leone who died after being burnt inside a prison cell in Deassau in 2005. He, too, had his hands and feet cuffed.

Officials argued that he had committed suicide, accusing Jalloh of having set himself and his mattress on fire. However, new analysis suggests he may have been beaten before his death.

Activists have launched fresh legal battles to reopen the case thanks to the new evidence, but the culprits are yet to be identified fifteen years after his death.

AFP
People hold banners reading: "Down with the racist" in Berlin on May 30, 2020, mentioning Oury Jalloh's caseAFP

Netherlands: How much influence does police racial bias have?

One of the most prominent cases of police violence in the Netherlands resulted in the death of 42-year-old Aruba-born tourist, Mitch Henriquez during a police check at a concert in 2015.

According to reports at the time, police said he was acting violent and resisting the arrest.

Just as in Floyd's case, the findings of an independent autopsy contradicted the official one, stating that Henriquez didn't die from "acute stress" as initially suggested but from asphyxia as a result of being choked.

The Hague's Schilderswijk neighbourhood, which has 10 of Netherland's poorest postcodes, and where around 85% of the population is made of first or second-generation migrants, was rocked by days of vehement protests in the wake of Henriquez's death.

One officer was sentenced while four other officers were acquitted. In that case, too, smartphone video footage helped to shed light on the case.

Amnesty Netherlands criticised how police and politicians reacted: "How much influence did the negative stereotypes on the Antillean community have on the decision to intervene with such an unusual resoluteness on the detainee?"

Norway: The case that changed police's way to operate

Scandinavia has not been immune to cases of police brutality. In 2006, 48-year-old Nigerian-Norwegian, Eugene Ejike Obiora died of asphyxiation during an arrest outside a social services centre.

He was pinned to the ground his stomach down and immobilised with a strangling technique until he lost consciousness. He was taken to hospital but medics were unable to save his life.

Obiora's death fuelled debate on racism in the Scandic country after nationwide protests shook Norway. As a result of his death, changes in protocols and an in-depth revision of disciplinary procedures were announced in the years that followed.

Switzerland: Who killed Mike?

Switzerland, too, has been touched by tragic deaths in police custody.

Nigerian citizen, Mike Ben Peter died in 2018 during a police check in Losanna.

He was pinned to the ground for six minutes before he died of cardiac arrest in hospital the following day. It was reported Peter was forced to bear the "weight of six police officers" on top of him.

Authorities said they found cocaine in his mouth, giving rise to allegations of drugs overdose, but toxicological analysis excluded traces of drugs in his blood.

The 40-year-old man was part of the Jean Dutoit group, formed by migrants and other supporters.

Official reports said he might have died because of different factors, including stress, obesity and cardiac malformation, though any particular link between his death and the "ventral tackle" restraint technique was excluded.

Peter's family and their lawyers have argued that that hypothesis "legitimates police violence."

As it did on the streets of Minneapolis with George Floyd, Peter's death sparked "Who Killed Mike?" protests across Switzerland. Two years on, the case is still open.

UK: No officer convicted for murder despite over 1,700 custody deaths since 1990

There have been a staggering 1,741 deaths in police custody in the UK since 1990, although no officer has ever convicted for murder or manslaughter since before 1986.

The most notorious case of death due to police violence was that of Ian Tomlinson, a newspaper vendor who was shoved to the ground by a policeman during an anti-G20 protest in London in 2009. He passed away shortly afterward in a nearby street due to internal haemorrhaging.

The first official autopsy indicated he had died because of a heart attack, though later analysis determined the real cause of death.

Officer Simon Harwood was charged with manslaughter but was later exonerated. He was fired by London's Metropolitan Police, which later issued an apology to Tomlinson's family and agreed to pay them compensation.

In 2008, Sean Rigg, a black music producer with a mental health condition, died of a cardiac arrest at a police station in Brixton. Despite clear signs he was unwell, he died handcuffed on the floor of his cell. An officer was caught on CCTV saying that Rigg was "faking it."

Other notable cases include that of former British Army paratrooper, Christopher Adler, who died in police custody in Kingston-upon-Hull in 1998. Shiji Lapite, a Nigerian asylum-seeker, died of asphyxiation in a police van in east London four years before Adler. The police officers involved in both cases were not prosecuted.