ATHENS (Reuters) - Greek lawmakers on Tuesday passed a bill toughening anti-racism laws and making Holocaust denial a criminal act, as it cracks down on a wave of xenophobic attacks that have come amid the country’s worst-ever peace-time financial crisis.
A gateway into the European Union for thousands of migrants from Asia and Africa, Greece is home to more than 1 million undocumented migrants, who face growing hostility as the country struggles through a six-year recession and record unemployment.
Hate crimes have surged alongside the rise of the fiercely anti-immigrant Golden Dawn party, whose top members are in jail pending trial on charges of setting up a criminal group that attacks immigrants and opponents. They deny the accusations.
“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 week.
The bill raises the prison term for instigating hate crimes to three years from two and allows prosecutors to investigate crimes even if the victims fail to report them to authorities.
It also imposes fines of up to 30,000 euros for those instigating racism and up to 100,000 euros for groups involved in racially motivated crimes, in addition to banning them from receiving state funding for up to six months.
A controversial article criminalizing the denial or trivialization of the Holocaust, Nazi war atrocities and genocide, was voted for by 54 of the 99 lawmakers present during the summer session.
The government had rejected a proposed amendment that would have legally recognized gay and lesbian couples, citing the need for study of tax and religious issues, despite a 2013 EU court ruling that it was violating EU rules by not doing so.
Rights groups like Human Rights Watch that have long criticized Greece for turning a blind eye to racism welcomed the latest changes.
“Greece is waking up to the fact that there is a serious problem with racist violence,” Human Rights Watch said in a recent report.
Golden Dawn, which features a swastika-like emblem and has referred to immigrants as “subhumans”, said the new rules violated freedom of expression.
“What is xenophobia? The railings at my home stopping a Pakistani, or any foreigner, from raping my wife or killing me?” Golden Dawn lawmaker Michail Arvanitis told parliament. “Discrimination is a fact of life.”
Golden Dawn’s leader, Nikos Michaloliakos, has denied the Holocaust, and the party’s members have been seen giving Nazi salutes. Michaloliakos has held in pre-trial detention after a party supporter killed a anti-fascist rapper a year ago.
An investigation into Golden Dawn’s links to a string of violent attacks, including the killing of the rapper and a Pakistani immigrant, has entered its final stage. A trial of more than 70 suspects, including Golden Dawn’s 16 lawmakers, is expected to begin in November. The new laws cannot be applied to those on trial.
Reporting by Renee Maltezou and Karolina Tagaris; Writing by Renee Maltezou; Editing by Larry King