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Greek hate crimes law: Threat to free speech?

Anti-racism law strengthens penalties for racist incitement and violence, but some fear it may curb free speech.

| Human Rights, Greece, Europe

Far-right Golden Dawn party lawmaker Ilias Kasidiaris delivers a speech in Athens in May [EPA]

By

Jillian Kestler-D'Amours

Athens, Greece - After Greece's passing of an anti-racism law was hailed last month as an important step to stem a rising tide of xenophobic violence, rights groups are cautioning against potential curbs to freedom of speech and association.

"Racial motivation can be attached to any felony or misdemeanour in the Greek criminal code and this will hopefully make it more likely that the police and prosecutors will investigate [this] motivation … and easier for the courts to apply it," said Eva Cosse, a senior research assistant and Greece specialist at New York-based Human Rights Watch.

After being introduced in parliament in November 2013, Greece passed the latest draft of its anti-discrimination law on September 9. The law bolsters the country's decades-old hate crimes legislation, handing out three-year prison terms and levying fines of between $38,000-$125,000 for instigating racism, and inciting violence, respectively.

The law also criminalises the denial of crimes against humanity and acts of genocide, such as the Holocaust.

We need to take care, very seriously, about possible applications of the law which violate freedom of expression.

- Dimitris Christopoulos, Panteion University

"Reinforcing our legislative arsenal is demanded more than ever today, when the enemies of democracy and those who deny the human substance preach hatred," Justice Minister Haralambos Athanassiou told parliament last month.

While racist discrimination has been punishable in Greece since 1979, the courts largely failed to use the legislation. In 2008, Greece designated religious, national and racial hatred, and hatred based on sexual orientation as aggravated circumstances in criminal acts, allowing judges to apply the maximum penalty to perpetrators. But according to Cosse, this amendment was never applied in practice.

"Before, racist motivation could be considered only during a trial at the sentencing phase, after determination of guilt," she said. "Hopefully, now [with the new law], prosecutors will be willing to [consider it sooner]. They have the tools, and it's now their responsibility."

Greek police 'ill-equipped'

Greece has witnessed an uptick in xenophobic attacks in recent years. The UN-affiliated Racist Violence Recording Network documented 166 incidents of racist violence across Greece in 2013, resulting in at least 320 victims. The majority of the violent acts were carried out against immigrants or refugees, while 22 attacks targeted members of the LGBT community, and one was against a human rights worker.

HRW reported that Greek police were "ill-equipped or ill-disposed to investigate reports of racist violence", and discouraged victims from filing official complaints. Speaking to HRW, Afghan refugee Mahmoud said he did not file a police report after an attack in Athens injured his wife, Maria.

"Go to the police? Is that a joke? If you go to the police they tell you to go fight yourself," said Mahmoud.

If applied correctly, the law could reform the Greek authorities' disinclination to investigate racist motives for crimes, said Dimitris Christopoulos, associate professor in the department of political science and history at Panteion University.

"For the Greek policemen, a case where a man has been beaten for racist reasons is equivalent to a case where a man has been beaten because he was driving drunk in the streets, or had a dispute over a football match, or so on. The police never asked about the racist motivation," Christopoulos told Al Jazeera.

"That is something we will not change with a law … Of course, such a law can be in the good direction, but we need to take care, very seriously, about possible applications of the law which violate freedom of expression."

There is a big problem of racism in the atmosphere. A law cannot solve this issue if a big part of the population shares some racist views.

- Theodoidis Athanasios, European Network of Legal Experts

Curbing freedom of speech?

Human rights groups have pointed to the legislation's vague phrasing, and banning of racist speech and membership in groups that engage in inciting hatred, discrimination and violence, as potentially opening the door to violations of freedom of speech and association.

"These provisions … raise concerns about undue interference in freedom of expression. Speech should not be criminalised, except if it's direct incitement to violence," Cosse said.

When asked to comment, the Ministry of Justice referred Al Jazeera to a government websiteoutlining the law's contents and parliamentary processes involved in amending it.

The measures are believed to target Greece's far-right, including the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party, the third-largest in parliament. Golden Dawn leaders, including party head Nikos Michaloliakos, are facing criminal charges for suspected membership in a criminal organisation.

"One reason that the Golden Dawn party is so [popular] is the economic crisis. The reality of everyday life does not help people to think otherwise. An economic crisis is not a good framework to develop anti-racist policies," said Theodoidis Athanasios, a legal analyst for Greece in the European Network of Legal Experts in the non-discrimination field.

Athanasios told Al Jazeera while the new law may curb racist violence, the problem runs much deeper.

"It's not just the law; it's a matter of culture, education, mass media… There is a big problem of racism in the atmosphere. A law cannot solve this issue if a big part of the population shares some racist views."

Source: Al Jazeera

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