Last Friday was no ordinary day for victims of racist attacks in Greece. An Athens court sentenced a 20-year-old man to fourteen years and three months in prison for a series of attacks on Pakistani men in September 2012.
Without a doubt, this was a historic conviction and a landmark in the fight against the alarming phenomenon of racist violence in Greece. But the successful outcome is not all good news.
The prosecutor did not argue formally that the crimes were motivated by racism. Although racist motivation was introduced in 2008 as an aggravating circumstance in the commission of a crime, the provision has been applied only one known time – at a misdemeanor court in November 2013 – in the nearly six years since its introduction.
A critical problem with Greek law is that it provides that racist motivation may only be addressed in the sentencing phase, rather than during the trial in determining guilt, making police and prosecutors less likely to investigate potential bias elements of a crime from the outset. Victims’ lawyers are not allowed to speak during the sentencing phase, so how and whether the court considers mitigating and aggravating circumstances lies in the hands of the prosecutor.
Prosecutors and the courts often choose other aggravating circumstances, or not argue them at all if the guilty verdict carries a significant sentence. In this case, the accused was found guilty of numerous charges, including grievous bodily harm and simple complicity in attempted murder, with the latter conviction alone resulting in a ten-year prison term. At the same time, the court rightly upheld the mitigating circumstance of post-adolescent age because of the accused’s young age.
But this often means hate crimes are not recognized and counted as such. Racist and xenophobic violence is intended to send a hateful message. It’s the prosecutor’s role to send an equally powerful counter-message by arguing the racist motivation in a crime during the sentencing, and for the Court to apply it. In this case, the prosecutor and the court missed an opportunity to send this important message for which the victims have been waiting for so long.