RACE hate victims are being “failed” by Northern Ireland’s criminal justice system, according to a leading human rights organisation.
Between 2017/18 and 2021/22, 3,586 race hate crimes were reported - but only around one in eight (12.1%) resulted in someone being charged or summonsed to court.
Hate crimes had a lower charge rate than any other serious offences, including sexual crimes (12.6%) which have historically had some of the lowest charge levels.
Just over half of race hate crimes referred by the PSNI to the Public Prosecution Service (PPS) over the same period resulted in a prosecution - far below the average prosecution rate of around 68% for all crimes.
Patrick Corrigan, director of Amnesty Northern Ireland, said the figures were a serious cause for concern.
“Simply put, the criminal justice system in Northern Ireland is failing victims of racist hate crime,” he told The Detail.
Spate of crimes
A spate of race hate crimes against ethnic minority-owned businesses in south Belfast over the summer has prompted serious concerns.
On September 17, a grocery shop on Donegall Road was destroyed in an arson attack.
On August 18, a computer shop on Sandy Row was also destroyed by arsonists.
Before the attacks, both businesses had been targeted several times.
The number of race hate crimes in the south Belfast area has more than doubled over the past five years from 70 in 2017/18 to 147 in 2022/23.
Police said their investigation into the “racially motivated” attacks is continuing.
“I would reiterate our appeal for anyone who has any information on recent hate crimes in south Belfast to provide this to police,” a PSNI spokesman said.
In recent years, high-profile race hate crimes have included two arson attacks on Belfast Multicultural Association (BMCA), formerly housed on Donegall Pass in south Belfast.
After the first arson attack, in January 2021, two men were arrested. A file was later submitted to the PPS in relation to one of the men. However, the PPS decided there was not enough evidence to prosecute.
Shortly after the building was repaired, it was set alight again in April 2022.
The BMCA later sold the building, saying its members were too afraid to return.
At the time, BMCA trustee Muhammed Atif said he was concerned that no one had been brought to justice.
“We feel PSNI has failed us,” he said.
“Those people behind the attacks have been successful in their plans.”
The PSNI told The Detail it has now “exhausted all active lines of enquiry as part of our investigation” into both attacks.
“If fresh evidence comes to light, it will be thoroughly investigated.”
Mr Corrigan said low prosecution rates meant that those responsible “know that there is an incredibly low chance of them being held accountable for their actions”.
“That breeds a sense of impunity which, in turn, emboldens them to carry out further attacks,” he said.
“That is the reality which lies behind the concerted campaigns of race hate crime, and the deeply worrying rise in these attacks, that we have seen in places like south Belfast in recent times.”
The PPS said race hate crimes “are dreadful offences, which have a serious impact on victims, and damage communities and wider society”.
Marianne O’Kane, PPS Senior Assistant Director, rejected Amnesty’s claim that those behind the attacks are operating with virtual impunity, saying that “such remarks have the capacity to seriously undermine the confidence of victims to report offending to police and to support prosecutions”.
“These cases present challenges and complexities for the whole criminal justice system, and the PPS works closely with our criminal justice partners including the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) to prosecute them robustly where there is the evidence to do so,” she said.
A spokesman for the Department of Justice said it works with partners “who have the levers to tackle race hate crime and the underlying, enabling factors of race hate which is important to prevent such crimes happening in the first place".
The department said a bill aimed at tackling hate crime is being developed but that it cannot be passed without an executive at Stormont.
The PSNI was asked what it is doing to improve arrest and charge rates for race hate crimes.
Belfast Commander Chief Superintendent Darrin Jones said tackling hate crime “is a priority for the Police Service”.
“We understand the harm that hate crime has on victims, their families and the entire community in south Belfast,” he said.