Greece to crack down on hate crimes

02/10/2012

The government blames neo-Nazi group Golden Dawn for the rise in immigrant assaults.

By Andy Dabilis for Southeast European Times in Athens -- 02/10/12

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Immigrants in Greece protest against racism attacks in Athens in August. [Reuters]

Reeling from an onslaught of assaults against immigrants -- including by extremist group MPs -- Athens is proposing to toughen penalties against hate crimes to include a minimum three-year prison sentence.

Greece's current guidelines do not have specific penalties for racial motives, which often result in suspended sentences or reduced jail time. But with human rights groups claiming the government has done too little to stop the surge in beatings, Justice Minister Antonis Roupakiotis said he will put judicial reforms before parliament.

The change was prompted by a rash of immigrant beatings, and after lawmakers of the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party were seen on tape smashing stalls operated by immigrants at a street fair, members of parliament began to consider revoking their immunity.

"We condemn in the strongest possible way every act of violence, and especially actions by members and supporters of Golden Dawn against immigrants or other citizens," Roupakiotis said. "The rise in hate attacks against foreigners is starting to take a dangerous direction. The country's acute migration problem and its consequences cannot, of course, be dealt with using inhumanly violent means."

Golden Dawn has stormed the political stage after receiving 7 percent of the vote in this spring's elections to take 18 seats in parliament -- up from 0.29 percent of the vote in the 2009 elections. Recent polls show support is soaring again, to as much as 12 percent. The party blames the increase in crime during the crushing economic crisis on immigrants.

The party’s spokesman, MP Ilias Kasidiaris, who is facing charges of assaulting Leftist politicians on a TV show, was not available for comment.

The surge in assaults against immigrants has coincided with a government sweep to round up illegal foreigners as it sets up detention centres to hold them before deportation, a move human rights and immigrant groups criticised.

Judith Sunderland, a senior Western Europe researcher at Human Rights Watch, said that a special police unit was supposed to already be in place, along with tougher penalties.

"These are all positive moves, as they suggest the government is indeed taking racist violence seriously, finally. But we need to see concrete steps and forward movement to make sure the announcements don't remain empty air," she told SETimes.

Mustafa Alizada, 23, a Syrian immigrant who works with the group Medical Intervention, which provides medical supplies for jailed immigrants, said that tougher penalties are needed.

"We think it will help the people here under persecution," he told SETimes. "These people are extremely dangerous."

John Nomikos, head of the Athens-based Research Institute for American and European Studies, blamed the government's failure to have a strategy to deal with a wave of immigrants who want to seek asylum or use the country to enter other EU countries.

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"The Greek government lost a lot of time to act against illegal migration few years ago," and curtail growing resentment against immigrants, he told SETimes.

Kadir Hoffaini, 34, an Afghan interpreter for Doctors of the World, said that two years ago while returning from a kiosk at night, half a dozen young men suddenly came out of a church and attacked him. "They were cursing and swearing and started hitting me severely on my head and face," he told SETimes.

Tougher penalties may help, he said, but he said he was struck by the hatred and savagery of the attack. "There was no reason," he said. "It was just because I was a foreigner."

"For me, Greece is like a second country," he said. "It's the country that gave birth to democracy and all sciences. I hope we get over this crisis."

This content was commissioned for SETimes.com.
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