Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia - The government here has embarked on a series of sweeping reforms to the country's legal system, including provisions that aim to prevent crimes of hate, bigotry and discrimination.
Hate crime has emerged as a serious issue in Mongolia, rising to international prominence in 2011 when nationalist groups - many of whom draw from neo-Nazi ideology - were found responsible for numerous attacks against the country's Lesbian Gay Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) population, and foreign migrant communities.
Though reliable statistics are hard to come by, rights groups say vicious attacks continue to mar Mongolia's human rights record.
On April 10, three foreign men were physically attacked by a neo-Nazi group at a rock concert in Ulaanbaatar, the capital. In February, a homosexual man who later died was sexually assaulted by homophobic nationalists: police first refused to register his case, because male-to-male rape is not considered a crime under domestic law.
A civil rights advocate, who asked not to be named, described the event as a hate crime. "We are not sure whether later [the victim] was murdered - or whether he killed himself," he says.
The legal reform proposals, announced in May, include a review of anti-discrimination provisions in the country's criminal code. Civil rights groups are calling for the inclusion of hated-based motivation as an aggravating factor in criminal sentencing.
"Hate-motivated acts need to be included as a crime category," says Bataa Bayaraa, head of the Mongolian National Human Rights Commission's Complaints and Inquiry Division. "That's why we proposed to include provisions … [for] those acts where perpetrators pressure, threaten and interfere with the daily lives of people out of hatred."
It comes as Mongolia's Justice Minister Kh Temuujin, who has faced a series of recent scandals, embarks upon an expansive legal-reform agenda.
At present, no measures exist to further penalise perpetrators for suspected bias-motivated violence, nor are law enforcement agencies required to outline suspected intent.
It is not yet clear what these draft measures would deploy as additional penalties for those found guilty of hate-motivated acts. As currently drafted, the law would require training of law enforcement agencies to recognise and report cases of suspected hate-based acts. This, say advocates, will prove vital in gathering reliable records.
|Mongolia's economy is growing quickly due to a mining boom, leading to rapid social changes [GALLO/GETTY]
In late May, the ministry of justice, responsible for submission of the draft to parliament, removed hate-oriented provisions, replacing these with generalised references to "discrimination".
Some argue this may lead to broader, unintended implications. "They had intended to draft hate crimes into law," explains Anaraa Nyamdorj, executive director of the country's LGBT Centre.
"Instead they've codified discrimination, drafting it in such a way - so broad - that it will be very difficult to bring down to an implementation level. It means that Mongolia could very well be one of the first countries in the world to criminalise the very concept of discrimination almost entirely."
The initial draft, produced by a working group made up of rights groups and justice ministry officials in January this year, had included specific provisions for crimes of "hate bias".
Provisions would, in a similarly unprecedented move, establish penalties and reparations that would recognise psychological, as well as physical, damage caused by such crimes.
Discrimination in Mongolia
"Anti-discrimination provisions are included to some extent in the laws of every sector; for instance, under labour and family laws," explains Bayaraa, himself a member of the working group.
The National Human Rights Commission lent its support to the inclusion of hate-based provisions in light of numerous complaints it received, which found that, in such circumstances, "motivations are special and not like that of any other similar crimes", says Bayaraa.
Many had hoped that the country's anti-discrimination laws would be extended to include restrictions on offending, insulting or humiliating people because of their sexual orientation.
As it stands, the far-reaching law risks being perceived as a threat to free speech.
"It runs the risk of being seen in a negative light - people can't even say what they want to because then it will be considered discrimination," Anaraa says. "Then if it's discrimination, it's a crime, so I can't even fully express myself."
Discrimination, seen as a possible precursor to hate crimes, remains prominent in Mongolia. The National Human Rights Commission said in 2012, almost 80 percent of people surveyed who identified themselves as LGBT had experienced some form of human rights abuse in the previous three-year period. Almost three-quarters had considered suicide one or more times, "due to society’s intolerance and failure to understand them", the commission reported.
In September 2009, for example, three transgendered women were kidnapped at one of the city's most vibrant promenades, in broad daylight, by a local hyper-nationalist group. In a 2011 documentary titled Lies of Liberty, one of the victims said they were driven to a cemetery on the city's outskirts. "Nine men were there and were beating us in different ways," she explains.
The film outlines how the women were also sexually assaulted before being forced to conduct sexual acts on the perpetrators. The women say they were targeted because of their sexual orientation, with the men describing the vicious assaults as a "warning to their kind", one victim says.
Politics of justice
The country's legal reform agenda is further complicated by recent efforts to remove the minister of justice over allegations of drug-use and salacious behaviour. In early May, local MPs lodged parliamentary petitions calling for his removal. Temuujin has denied the claims and so far kept his job.
We cannot wait for these constitutional amendments to be passed ... Right now lives are being affected irreversibly.
Temuujin enjoys broad, continued support among the country's civil society groups. Many fear legal reforms would be indefinitely postponed if he was ousted.
"Temuujin is a young politician, and one who is trying to transform the law," says Altanchimeg Delegchoimbol, head of UNAIDS Mongolia. "Mongolia's parliament is filled with many long-standing lawyers, who feel that the original criminal code - the one that they drafted - is the best. As a result, the criminal code of Mongolia has always been a law that is extremely difficult to amend."
Bayaraa says the draft law, though likely to face substantive amendments throughout the course of parliamentary sessions, is likely to be passed.
Others have expressed uncertainty as to whether hate-crimes legislation should be a priority, given its provisions serve for the protection of minorities.
Yet for some, the changes cannot come soon enough.
"An issue like this can no longer be ignored," says Anaraa of the LGBT Centre. "We cannot wait for these constitutional amendments to be passed. We need to take whatever we can ... and run with it. Right now, lives are being affected irreversibly."