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Greece ‘failing’ to tackle racist violence

The new draft law would criminalise hate speech and incitement to violence but it does not address the core of the problem, the violent racist attacks on migrants and asylum seekers – says Eva Cossé

Last week, when the Greek justice minister submitted to parliament a long-awaited draft law aimed at tackling growing racism, we felt excitement and suspense as everyone rushed to read it. But disappointment quickly followed. The draft law would criminalise hate speech and incitement to violence but it does not address the core of the problem: violent racist attacks on migrants and asylum seekers.

Ali Rahimi, an Afghan asylum seeker who was stabbed five times in the torso in Athens in September 2011, is one of the many victims we have spoken to who are still waiting for justice. The trial of two men and a woman accused of the attack has been postponed eight times. But at least Rahimi has the chance to pursue his attackers.

Hassan Mohammed, a Somali migrant left bleeding and unconscious on an Athens street after an assault in October 2011 by a large group of people, did not have that opportunity. Police told him bluntly that he would be arrested if he tried to file an official complaint. Unlike Rahimi, who had papers, Mohammed was undocumented.

Fear of detention and deportation prevent many undocumented migrants from reporting attacks. As Human Rights Watch has documented, many other victims don’t report attacks to the police because of lack of trust. But the police themselves actively discourage many victims from filing complaints, telling them it is not worth it if they cannot recognise the assailants – or that they should fight back themselves. Those who insist often face a €100 fee to file an official complaint.

Greece now has new anti-racism police units, a positive step. Although it does not help that their mandate is limited to offenses committed exclusively because of the victim’s racial or ethnic origin or religion. The mandate should cover all hate crimes, including crimes in which racist motivation may be one among multiple motives.

And even if the attacker is arrested, there are no guarantees that potential hate motivation will be properly investigated. Greek law 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. If authorities are serious in their pledge to tackle racism and xenophobia, they should seize the bill as an opportunity to remove the legal and practical obstacles to justice for victims of racist attacks.

Parliamentarians should ensure that the draft law includes provisions to protect undocumented migrant victims and witnesses from detention and deportation. It should require enforcement officials to suspend all migration law actions arising from the undocumented status of a victim or witness pending a prima facie assessment by a prosecutor of the merits of a complaint about an attack. The bill should also explicitly require mandatory investigation for any crime categorised as a potential hate crime, regardless of its nature, without requiring victims to pay any fee.

The members of parliament should also carefully review measures in the bill that raise concerns about undue interference with freedom of expression and association. The legislation would impose criminal sanctions for incitement to hatred, discrimination and violence as well as participation in associations that ‘systematically seek’ to engage in such incitement. It would also criminalise denial of genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity. The justice minister would have the authority to impose tough administrative sanctions such as fines on associations if a member is indicted for offences covered by the bill.

Imposing sanctions for direct incitement to violence is legitimate, but speech that falls short of direct incitement shouldn’t be criminalised, however offensive or disrespectful it may be. Greek authorities should be defending freedom of speech and association by countering hateful ideas through public debate and criticism, not criminal sanction.

On the day the bill was submitted, the media reported that an Athens court convicted two men of a racially aggravated arson attack on a bar owned by a Tanzanian immigrant in central Athens – in the first known ruling based on a 2008 hate crimes statute. Though the men will be able to pay a fine instead of serving their prison sentences, the verdict is an important step toward justice for the countless victims of racist and xenophobic violence whom Greece has failed over the years.

The ruling is probably a result of the few, although important, positive steps that Greece has taken over the past year with the new specialised police units and the addition of a position for a prosecutor to focus on hate crimes in Athens in November 2012. The anti-racism bill is the chance for parliament to address the legal gaps that prevent effective prosecution of hate violence. The members of parliament should seize the opportunity.

Eva Cossé is a Greece specialist at the Human Rights Watch campaign group

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