(Milan) – Greece’s government should move quickly to adopt measures to combat hate crimes and protect victims, Human Rights Watch said today. A bill on hate speech and racist violence has yet to be submitted in parliament because of disagreement among the three parties in the ruling coalition over its scope.
“With people being attacked on the streets, Greece urgently needs to beef up its criminal justice response to hate crimes,” said Judith Sunderland, senior Western Europe researcher at Human Rights Watch. “This draft law contains some good provisions and should be improved in parliament rather than delayed further.”
A version of the draft law seen by Human Rights Watch would protect migrants who are victims of, or substantive witnesses to crime from deportation, as well as their families, while the alleged attackers are prosecuted. Human Rights Watch research indicates that fear of deportation deters undocumented migrants from reporting attacks to the police.
Human Rights Watch wrote a letter to the minister of justice in February 2013 outlining the legislative steps needed to ensure an effective response to hate crimes. Parliament should consider those recommendations when reviewing the bill.
In particular, parliament should include a provision to require a mandatory investigation by the police with a view to prosecution for any suspected hate crime, without the requirement for victims to pay a €100 fee to file their complaint. Some of the victims Human Rights Watch interviewed were told to pay the controversial fee, which is intended to deter frivolous complaints.
The bill would toughen criminal sanctions for incitement to hatred and racist violence, but it also problematically addresses so-called denial of genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity. The problematic provisions would increase penalties for denying these crimes, which is considered a criminal offense. Additionally, the minister of justice would have the power to ban an association if one of its members commits a hate crime provided for in the bill, including such a denial. While sanctioning direct incitement to violence is legitimate, speech that falls short of incitement to violence should not be criminalized, however offensive it may be, Human Rights Watch said.
Likewise, the measure to ban an organization, which is hard to reconcile with the right to freedom of association, should be reviewed for its compatibility with relevant human rights standards. The case law of the European Court of Human Rights indicates that an organization does not forfeit the right to freedom of association as a result of punishable acts committed by individual members, as long as the organization itself is not implicated in the acts.
“There are legitimate concerns about the overbroad scope of some provisions in this bill, but that shouldn’t be an excuse for inaction,” Sunderland said. “Parliament should have the opportunity to debate and improve the bill in line with Greece’s human rights obligations.”
In July 2012, Human Rights Watch published the report, “Hate on the Streets: Xenophobic Violence in Greece,” which documented an alarming surge in xenophobic attacks and the failure of the Greek police and the judiciary to prevent, investigate, and punish alarming vigilante violence targeting migrants and asylum seekers. This violence is continuing, with 217 racist incidents between October 2011 and December 2012, according to the most recent figures from the national network recording racist violence.
Greece has taken some positive steps recently. In January, specialized police units to tackle racist violence became operational across Greece and some arrests have been made. In November 2012, the Athens First Instance Prosecutor’s Office appointed a specialized prosecutor on hate crimes.