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Rights Activists Say Danes Unaware of Racism in Their Nation

Delegates confer during a debate on human rights violations and systematic racism in Europe at the 43rd session of the Human Rights Council, at the European headquarters of the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, June 17, 2020.
Delegates confer during a debate on human rights violations and systematic racism in Europe at the 43rd session of the Human Rights Council, at the European headquarters of the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, June 17, 2020.

Rights activists on Thursday accused Danish officials of being unable to recognize racism after authorities said the killing of a biracial man by two white men was not racially motivated.

"In Denmark, white people are colorblind. They cannot see that racism exists. That is embarrassing,"said Jette Moeller, head of the Danish chapter of SOS-Racism, an international association.

"Of course, racism exists (in Denmark). We know that. It has been documented for years," said Mira Chandhok Skadegaard, an assistant professor at Aalborg University in northern Denmark.

A biracial man was killed last month on a Danish Baltic Sea island. The Danish police, prosecutor, a defense lawyer and a white friend of the victim all say a personal relationship that went wrong between the victim and the perpetrators was the reason for the slaying, not racism.

The 28-year-old victim, who had Danish and African roots, was found on the island of Bornholm on June 23. Two white brothers in their 20s whom the victim reportedly knew have been detained until July 22 on suspicion of murder. None have been named by authorities.

Speculation that the killing could be racially motivated began after it emerged that the victim's death bore some similarities to that of George Floyd, a Black man who died May 25 in Minneapolis after a white police officer pressed a knee into his neck for several minutes even as Floyd pleaded for air. Floyd's death has sparked protests around the world demanding racial justice and condemning police brutality.

The Danish chapter of Black Lives Matter wrote on Facebook that "two brothers committed a racial murder on Bornholm" and posted a photo of a swastika tattoo, claiming it was on one suspect's leg.

"Let a judge decide" whether the slaying was racially motivated, Moeller told The Associated Press in an interview. "But it should be investigated as a racially motivated crime. Knowing those who killed him doesn't rule out it could include some racial elements."

Activists like Moeller see a pattern of denial in Denmark, which they attribute to rising anti-immigrant attitudes in the Nordic country. She also points out that Denmark's freedom of expression should not be used to denigrate people, and the miss-use of that right has previously brought the Scandinavian country of 10 million into the crosshairs of Muslims around the world.

"Racism is about the effect it has on other people ... One cannot use the liberty of expression as an excuse to taunt others, like Rasmus Paludan does by burning copies of the Quran," she said.

For months, Paludan, a far-right provocateur, has been touring the country and tossing copies of the Islamic holy book in the air before burning them before immigrants. This has sometimes led to brief confrontations between onlookers and police who have been protecting Paludan.

Last month, Paludan was convicted of racism, among other things, with a court ruling that "his statements were derogatory and degrading toward a population group." He was given a three-month prison sentence, of which two were suspended, and his licence to practice law was suspended in part for three years. He has appealed the sentence.

In September 2005, the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published 12 cartoons showing the Prophet Muhammad. This caused wide outrage among Muslims, who generally hold that any depiction of Muhammad is blasphemous and prompted often violent protests in Muslim countries. The newspaper — one of Denmark's largest — said it had wanted to test whether cartoonists would apply self-censorship when asked to portray Muhammad. No Danish laws were violated with the cartoons' publication.

It was the same daily that in January published a cartoon with the Chinese flag with what resembles viruses instead of the normal stars, sparking China's anger. In both cases, the Danish right to freedom of speech was invoked.

In 2017, a 16-year-old Afghan boy was set on fire by four schoolmates but race was ruled out as factor. The four teenagers were found guilty of gross violence and the Afghan boy survived with burns on his legs and chest.

A 2018 report by the European Union pointed out that hate crimes in Denmark had quadrupled over 11 years, from 35 reported cases in 2007 to 140 cases in 2016.

In Europe, "Denmark belongs to the tough group," Moeller told the AP. "I believe that we're on the right track as we start to discuss it, address it."

She noted that a racial justice demonstration in Copenhagen on June 7 drew at least 15,000 people.

Chandhok Skadegaard, who has been studying discrimination for decades, said Danes "are far behind when it comes to recognizing racism in our society. Sweden is several steps ahead of Denmark ... as is Norway, and Finland and England."

"People tend to not report discrimination, because they find it is not acknowledged or taken seriously by the authorities," she said.

In 2016, Denmark made international headlines when a law was passed requiring asylum-seekers to hand over valuables worth more than 10,000 kroner ($1,500), to help cover housing and food costs while their cases were being processed. Although the center-right government behind the move said it was in line with rules for unemployed Danes seeking benefits, critics denounced the law as inhumane.

Still, the law has not been changed under Denmark's present Social Democratic government.