Greece: a new, tougher law against racism?

Greek media hailed on 07 May 2013 a proposed new bill against racism that was reportedly prepared by the Ministry of Justice and will be submitted to parliament after the Easter holiday. According to news reports (see e.g. here, here, here and here), the new bill proposes much harsher penalties for all forms of hate speech, with prison sentences ranging from 3 to 6 years and fines up to €20,000, while deprivation of political rights would be considered in certain cases. Discussion of this bill began in the public debate as it was announced that parliament would discuss lifting the immunity of Golden Dawn MP Germenis following his assault on Mayor of Athens Kaminis last week during a food distribution “for Greeks only” organized by Golden Dawn.

The news reports say that the bill would target:

  • Anyone who intentionally, publicly, verbally or through the media or on the internet or in any other way, incites to or participates in acts of violence against individuals or groups defined by race, skin colour, religion, ethnic origin or sexual orientation.
  • Anyone who denies or plays down the gravity of genocides, crimes against humanity, war crimes and fascism and Nazism in general.
  • Political party leaders who engage in such acts – in this case, the bill stipulates that State funding to the political party will be suspended.
  • Members of parliament who, speaking inside parliament, incite to or threaten with acts of violence on the basis of race, skin colour or ethnicity, or who praises fascist or Nazi war criminals, use their symbols or salute as they did – in this case, the bill allegedly stipulates that the parliamentary immunity of these MPs will be automatically lifted and that they will be answerable to the judiciary. In the case where such an MP is found guilty, they lose their seat and are banned from running for office until their sentence runs its course.
Law 927/1979
The law against racism and discrimination currently in effect in Greece is law 927/1979. It stipulates that a prison sentence of up to one year, or a fine, or both will be imposed on anyone who:
  • seeks, through his words or actions, to provoke discrimination, hatred or violence against individuals or groups on the basis of race or ethnicity, or
  • participates in organizations seeking to provoke any form of racial discrimination, or
  • insults individuals or groups on the basis of race or ethnic origin, or
  • engages in discrimination in providing goods and services on the basis of race or ethnic origin.
Law 927/1979 was later amended to include discrimination on religious grounds (1419/1984) and to allow for prosecution ex officio instead of restricting it to cases where the victim files a complaint (2910/2001), while law 3304/2005 integrated in the Greek legal system EU guidelines for equal treatment in the workspace regardless of race, ethnicity, religion or other beliefs.

Furthermore, the Greek Constitution stipulates (article 5, §2) that “All those present in the State of Greece enjoy absolute protection of life, honour and liberty, without any discrimination on the basis of ethnicity, race, language and religious or political beliefs”

One may wonder of course how, with such anti-racist laws in place, Greece could register Golden Dawn as a political party with legal recognition. The problem is that existing laws against racism were hardly ever used to prosecute anyone, and that their use hardly ever resulted in a prison sentence being issued and enforced. A case in point is the trial of Konstantinos Plevris for “Jews: The Whole Truth”, an obviously anti-Semitic book, whose sentence in 2007 was overturned by an appeals court in 2009. More revealingly still, perpetrators of racist attacks in Greece in the last year, even when clearly identified, have enjoyed de facto impunity. The Racist Violence Recording Network noted in its 2012 annual report:

In practice, the impunity of the perpetrators is a result of the fact that the relevant provision of Article 79 par. 3 of the Criminal Code (which was added through a legislative amendment in 2008 and stipulates that the perpetration of an act of hatred on national, racial, or religious grounds or hatred due to differentiated sexual orientation constitutes an aggravating circumstance) is not applied by neither the police nor the Prosecutor at the stage of the criminal prosecution; it is applied only at the stage of the decision on the sentence, thus, after the guilt or innocence of the offender has been established. It is noteworthy that this Article has never been used by the judicial authorities to date.

Discussion for an updated legal framework against racism began in late 2011 in order to embed the Council of Europe Framework Decision 2008/913/JHA of 28 November 2008 on combating certain forms and expressions of racism and xenophobia by means of criminal law in national legislation. A proposed bill was heavily criticized by all political parties for different reasons. Lawyer @Sotiropoulos noted at the time that the bill drafted by the Papademos government would actually weaken the legal framework against racism, as it removed provisions for criminalization of racist speech and limited the scope of the law to “public incitement to violence and hatred.” The bill was finally shelved and never made it to a vote by the plenary assembly of parliament.

In this context, the proposed bill reported by Greek media on 07 May 2013 could be perceived as a welcome development, in that it imposes harsher sentences for incitement to or perpetration of racist violence. Also noteworthy is the fact that the proposed bill seems to include for the first time discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation on equal footing with race, ethnicity and religion. What remains to be seen however is the actual scope of the bill, inasmuch as, according to available reports, it could be as restrictive as the 2008 bill that was shelved.

Another essential issue has to do with actual implementation of the law. As we said, the existing legal framework was hardly ever enforced at all, and at this point, impunity for racist crimes is the norm, while there are strong indications of inadequate investigation by and even collusion of the police in such crimes (see here and here). As early as June 2011, one year before Golden Dawn shot to international prominence and before its penetration of the police force was publicly discussed, the UNHCR’s office in Greece noted:

The incidents of racist violence are rarely investigated in a fair and efficient manner. Victims usually do not report them because they are either afraid of being arrested (in case they do not have any legal documents) or see no point in doing so given the general climate of impunity that seems to prevail. Those guilty of violent attacks against aliens remain undetected in their vast majority (although many criminal acts are automatically prosecuted) and even if brought before justice, the usual practice is that they are very soon set free. Until now nobody has ever been condemned for crimes with racist motives. Impunity intensifies and perpetuates violence, while this phenomenon is taking alarming dimensions. In parallel, there are reports against police tolerating or even concealing criminal behaviour, despite being present at the time an illegal act happens. [emphasis mine]

Furthermore, the provisions pertaining to political figures, in particular to lifting automatically the immunity of MPs who incite to or threaten with racist violence inside parliament, are questionable at best, especially when MPs from New Democracy or PASOK have themselves occasionally engaged in discourse that would qualify as hate speech in other EU countries. But the key issue here is constitutional provisions for parliamentary immunity. Quoting from the Constitution of Greece:

Article 61, §1: A Member of Parliament shall not be prosecuted or in any way interrogated for an opinion expressed or a vote cast by him in the discharge of his parliamentary duties.

Article 62: During the parliamentary term the Members of Parliament shall not be prosecuted, arrested, imprisoned or otherwise confined without prior leave granted by Parliament. Likewise, a member of a dissolved Parliament shall not be prosecuted for political crimes during the period between the dissolution of Parliament and the declaration of the election of the members of the new Parliament.
Leave shall be deemed not granted if Parliament does not decide within three months of the date the request for prosecution by the public prosecutor was transmitted to the Speaker.
The three month limit is suspended during the Parliament’s recess.
No leave is required when Members of Parliament are caught in the act of committing a felony.

When news reports of a new proposed bill against racism emerged on the internet on 7 May, the reaction of radiobubble’s resident lawyer @xasodikis on Twitter was therefore immediately dismissive:

“Without an amendment to the Constitution, no penalty can be imposed on MPs without lifting their immunity. And immunity cannot be lifted automatically.

In short: they’re kidding us.”

Update 10 May 2013: the government announced that the bill would be delayed “due to possible problems of a general nature.”

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